WASHINGTON -- The White House on Monday disputed reports that a group of moderate Syrian rebels -- part of the larger coalition that President Barack Obama wants to help fight the Islamic State -- struck a non-aggression pact with the Islamic State.
Those reports, which emerged late Friday night, sent shocks through some corners of the foreign policy community, where skepticism has been high over the president's plan to aid rebel factions. According to the stories, one of the main rebel groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, had agreed with the Islamic State that the two groups would not attack each other and would instead focus their efforts on unseating their mutual enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday during his daily briefing that SRF had issued a statement "indicating they have never ceased hostilities" with the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL. To supplement his point that SRF and the Islamic State were still in conflict, Earnest added a real-time war dispatch.
"I understand that right now, as we speak, the SRF and ISIL are currently fighting in a suburb in Syria," Earnest said. "And that the SRF and other elements of the moderate opposition have joined forces in the last couple of months to push ISIL from the region."
The motives of various Syrian rebel groups have been disputed over the past year, with reports suggesting some have allegiances with groups the U.S. is fighting. Despite the uncertainty over rebel groups' ties, members of Congress and other observers have consistently called for the U.S. to send funds to the more moderate factions in the hope of turning the tide in Syria's civil war. As the Islamic State has expanded its territory and power in the past few months, including in Syria, public awareness of the extremist group has risen, heightening the debate over arming the rebels. Obama has responded by redoubling efforts to send $500 million in arms and training to vetted members of the Syrian opposition.
A non-aggression pact between moderate rebels and the Islamic State would pose obvious problems for the administration's endgame of facilitating a new governing infrastructure in Syria different from both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. At a minimum, a truce would feed the criticism that the president is wrong to funnel aid to rebel factions in Syria.
According to a Friday report from Agence France-Presse, the SRF and the Islamic State decided to "respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime." Nussayri is a pejorative term for Assad’s religious sect. The AFP cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, as the source announcing the deal.
A senior administration official on Monday told The Huffington Post that SRF's denial of a truce was a solid assurance that no such pact ever was struck.
"If they had an alliance with ISIL, it doesn’t make sense that they would say they don't," said the official. Nevertheless, the administration was "of course looking into any such claims."
One possibility, both the official and Earnest noted, was that people mistook or misunderstood a separate truce that had taken place, this one involving the Hajar al-Aswad brigade and the Islamic State.
"Now I know that there are some claims that suggest that one local brigade of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front reached a 24-hour agreement with ISIL that quickly broke down," said Earnest. "But it was intended to allow both sides to retrieve the bodies of their fighters who had been killed in the ongoing conflict there."
Obama has been pressing Congress to give him new authority to train and equip the Syrian rebels. The House was slated to vote last week on a government spending bill that included that authority, but Republican leaders postponed the vote until this week to give members more time to review the administration-requested language.
Earnest signaled Monday that Obama is feeling confident about the level of support he has on Capitol Hill for expanded efforts in Syria.
“We’ve seen public statements from Democrats and Republicans in senior positions, both in the House and Senate, indicate that they support giving the administration the necessary authority to ramp up our assistance to the Syrian opposition,” he said. “We’re gratified by that show of bipartisan public support for this urgent priority.”
He added, “The president believes it’s important to strike while the iron is hot here and begin to ramp up this program as soon as possible.”