U.S. struggling over what to do with Syrian rebels once tied to al Qaida

McClatchy reports: Last July, an ultraconservative Islamist rebel group made a splash by publicly offering to work with Western powers to resolve the Syrian civil war and build “a moderate future,” a surprising overture from a force that regularly fights alongside al Qaida loyalists.

But the very next month, the same rebel group eulogized Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban chief who sheltered Osama bin Laden before and after the 9/11 attacks, as a steadfast warrior who embodied “the true meanings of jihad and sincerity.”

The mixed messaging from Ahrar al Sham poses a serious dilemma for the Obama administration and its allies as they determine which rebel militias are acceptable partners in a revived diplomatic effort to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Ahrar al Sham is one of Syria’s largest and most effective rebel forces, and its involvement in – or exclusion from – peace negotiations could determine the viability of any settlement hatched from a new series of negotiations in Vienna. The group is too important to exclude from talks on the country’s future, say officials and analysts who monitor the conflict.

But that’s a tough reality for U.S. diplomats, who are keenly aware that many of Ahrar’s members still cling to a hard-line ideology that’s caused Secretary of State John Kerry to liken the group to the Islamic State, al Qaida’s Nusra Front and Hamas – all designated terrorist organizations. A seemingly ascendant reformist faction within the group offers only slight encouragement, they say.

Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says Ahrar al Sham itself is riven by debate over what direction to go. [Continue reading…]

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