DAVID IGNATIUS: Al-Qaeda’s Syrian threat

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON

As al-Qaeda grows more powerful in Syria – seeking “complete control over the liberated areas,” according to a new Syrian rebel intelligence report – moderate opposition leaders are voicing new interest in a political settlement of the grinding civil war. But a peace agreement may just be a prelude to a new war against the terrorists.

This search for a political transition also has drawn together a disparate group of nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States. These nations met quietly in Geneva on Nov. 21 to discuss ways to provide humanitarian relief for thousands of civilians who face the threat of starvation this winter.

Negotiations have focused on providing supplies to civilians trapped in three areas: The old city of Homs, in central Syria; the town of Darayya, about six miles southwest of Damascus; and the town of Moadamiyeh, about eight miles southwest of the capital. A relief “working group” has been coordinated by Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator.

The raw materials for peace negotiations are there. But as always in the tragic Syrian conflict, the forces of sectarian conflict and political inertia seem stronger.

Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the moderate Free Syrian Army, said in a telephone interview Monday that he’s prepared to join the so-called “Geneva 2” peace negotiations scheduled for Jan. 21, if the Syrian regime will agree to confidence-building measures such as a humanitarian relief corridor to besieged areas.

Idriss didn’t demand as a precondition that President Bashar al-Assad resign before negotiations begin. Instead, he said, Assad’s departure should come “at the end of negotiations.”

Idriss stressed the threat posed by the al-Qaeda affiliate known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or ISIS. He said the group was “very dangerous for the future of Syria.”

These foreign jihadists are recruited from their home countries by a network headed by a fighter known as Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi.

“ISIS employs the policy of kidnapping in the areas in which it is deployed,” warns an intelligence report. The group’s prisons hold more than 35 foreign journalists, 60 Syrian political activists and more than 100 Free Syrian Army fighters.

Idriss said the Free Syrian Army is trying to fight a two-front war, battling al-Qaeda fighters at 24 locations over the past six months, even as it tries to keep fighting Assad’s army. The CIA is said to be training about 200 fighters for Idriss each month, though the commander wouldn’t acknowledge this support.

The two tracks – fighting and negotiating – sound good in principle. But the rebels haven’t been strong enough to make either approach work – and the U.S. hasn’t been ready to provide the necessary additional firepower. There’s more support now for a political settlement at a “Geneva 2” conference, but it’s clear that even if Assad leaves, a second Syrian war against al-Qaeda is ahead.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.