WASHINGTON ― Syria’s main anti-government rebel coalition hopes to keep U.S. support by pointing to successful advances against the so-called Islamic State and wants President Donald Trump to turn his talk of “safe zones” in the country into a U.S. plan for no-fly zones, a top spokesman told The Huffington Post on Friday.
Speaking from Geneva after the latest round of internationally sponsored talks between the opposition and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Maj. Issam Al Reis, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, cited its push against ISIS in northern Syria, in collaboration with Turkish forces, and the rebels’ resistance against ISIS advances in the south as evidence that it’s ready for the U.S. to step up.
And Al Reis dismissed the idea that Trump, who has praised Assad and his patron Russian President Vladimir Putin, would consider the regime a partner as he tries to win a quick high-profile victory against ISIS. Reporters and analysts following the conflict had noted that the U.S. air campaign against the extremist group recently launched airstrikes that helped Assad and his allies retake the city of Palmyra.
“The regime is not fighting ISIS,” Al Reis, a former officer in Assad’s army, said. He noted that Assad’s forces, which rely heavily on Russian jets and pro-Iran fighters, had captured and then lost Palmyra to ISIS before.
Analysts say Assad’s coalition has focused most of its attacks on the Free Syrian Army, which is relatively moderate and which the West considers an acceptable alternative to the regime, rather than on ISIS and the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, which the U.S. and a host of other nations are committed to defeating. Trump’s United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has continued the American denouncement of Assad.
Al Reis said Assad’s removal remains non-negotiable for the tens of thousands of fighters still loyal to the opposition, arguing that no peace would be possible without a political transition.
“We believe as soon as there’s a cease-fire, the regime will be out ... the regime is living on the blood of the Syrians,” he said, noting that international investigators concluded this week that Assad’s forces deliberately targeted a U.N. humanitarian aid convoy in September. The latest Geneva talks ended with a small breakthrough ― a commitment to negotiations later in the month ― but Al Reis blasted the regime for failing to stop attacks during the meetings, saying either it or Putin were at fault for breaking the promise to do so.
International support for the Syrian Free Army Southern Front, which Al Reis belongs to, has continued unchanged despite external developments, he said.
Aid to Free Syrian Army groups in the north had been cut after they appeared vulnerable to being defeated and having their weapons confiscated by hard-line Islamic militants, Reuters reported. The increasing power of Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in the north has caused some analysts to speculate that the opposition there is set to collapse ― deemed too extreme to the West and vulnerable to an all-out assault by the regime.
Al Reis conceded that many anti-Assad Syrians in the north had become close to the Al Qaeda group, now known as Tahrir al-Sham. He blamed Assad and Russia for deliberately pushing fighters and civilians into the movement’s arms by brutally crushing Aleppo, the chief rebel bastion in the northwest, and said the Free Syrian Army maintained a strong moderate presence in the north as part of its operation with Turkey.
“We know it’s a plan. We are trying to stop this from happening,” Al Reis said. “I don’t think Syrians accept the ideology of Al Qaeda.”
The spokesman said his group is focused on presenting itself as the best possible option for the U.S. against extreme militants in Syria.
This can be difficult in some instances. Much of the Free Syrian Army coalition dislikes a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has worked closely with the U.S. against ISIS. The Syrian coalition, predominantly Arab, says the YPG Kurds discriminate against Arabs and are too close to Assad. Turkey, the Free Syrian Army’s top foreign supporter, considers the YPG a terrorist group. Al Reis echoed the Turkish position in the Friday interview. The alliance between his rebel group and Turkey in northern Syria has had significant clashes with a YPG-controlled coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces, most recently this week, which puts Washington in a tough position.
And some of the anti-Islam faction around Trump is skeptical of the idea that the U.S. should work with Muslim rebels, saying a dictator with a secular veneer like Assad is preferable, dismissing concerns over the regime’s alleged war crimes and accusing even the celebrated aid organization The White Helmets of being a terrorist front.
But Al Reis said the rebels plan to emphasize that they have been fighting groups other than ISIS that the U.S. considers terroristic, notably the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
“If they are aiming to fight terrorism, they should think about who’s their partners,” he said.