The Cable

U.S. Weighing Closer Ties With Hardline Islamists in Syria

As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria's civil war. The development has alarmed U.S. observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share U.S. values and has dismayed supporters of the Free Syrian Army who believe the moderates were set up to fail.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group's seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week containing U.S.-supplied small arms and food. "We wouldn't rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday. "We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists ...  We're always open to meeting with a wide range of opposition groups. Obviously, it may make sense to do so at some point soon, and if we have something to announce, we will."

How soon the U.S. might engage with the powerful rebel faction, if it chooses to,  is uncertain. On Saturday, Reuters reported that Syrian rebel commanders in the Islamic Front were due to meet U.S. officials in Turkey in the coming days to discuss U.S. support for the group. A Syrian opposition source speaking with The Cable said that efforts were in place to unite the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front under the same coalition. "There are negotiations planned for very soon between the [Free Syrian Army's] SMC and the Islamic Front to determine what the relationship will be," said the source. America's role in coordinating the talks remains unclear.

Though the Islamic Front is not a U.S.-designated terrorist group, many of its members hold intensely anti-American beliefs and have no intention of establishing a secular democracy in Syria. U.S. interest in the group reflects the bedraggled state of the Supreme Military Council and the desire to keep military pressure on President Bashar al-Assad ahead of next month's planned peace conference in Geneva. "The SMC is being reduced to an exile group and the jihadists are taking over," said a senior congressional aide.

The creation of the Islamic Front was announced on Nov. 22 with the purpose of uniting the strength of prominent Islamist militias across the country. Seven Islamist groups, with a total estimated strength of 45,000 to 60,000 fighters, signed on to the merger.

Soon after its creation, the Islamic Front signed a charter that made it clear the group aimed to create a Sunni theocracy, not a Western-style democracy. The document rejected the prospect of any sort of representative government, arguing that in Islam, only "God is the sovereign." It explicitly rejects secularism as "contradictory to Islam," and argues that Syria's ethnic and religious minorities can be protected on the basis of Islamic law. 

Some of the comments from the Islamic Front's top leaders support the contention that the group's ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front's military chief, has demonized Syria's Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus. As he put it in a recent video: "The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it."

Though the coalition's beliefs are troubling, their military strength can't be denied. By some estimates, it's the single largest rebel command. With an inventory of heavy weaponry, tanks and artillery, experts say it's both disciplined and generously funded by Gulf sources.

Washington isn't simply looking for a place for the front. The U.S. also wants the Salafists to return the goods it took from the SMC's warehouses in Bab al Hawa in northern Syria. In an unexpected takeover, the SMC lost its headquarters to the front last week while its top commander, Gen. Salim Idriss, was out of the country . "Obviously if there would be a meeting with the Islamic Front, it would be in the context, certainly, of the taking over of the SMC headquarters," Harf said.

Any decision to engage or provide support to the Islamic Front risks angering non-interventionists in Congress. Senators such as Kentucky Republican Rand Paul have repeatedly warned the Obama administration against forging such alliances. "You will be funding allies of al Qaeda."

At the same time, some interventionists in the U.S have given up hope that the U.S. can pick the right winner in Syria. "The Islamic Front entrenching power is the culmination of what we worried about," said one hawkish Congressional aide. "By slow-rolling support to the SMC, only a fool would think they could survive on their own."

Others fear that without U.S. coordination with the Islamic Front, the stalemate in Syria will persist and Assad will continue to exploit divisions between the rebels.

David Kenner contributed to this report.

National Security

CIA Torture Report Poised for Release -- At Least Some of It

Portions of the Senate's long-awaited report on Bush-era interrogation practices are poised to be released, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

On Thursday night, Feinstein said the CIA and the Obama administration have agreed that portions of her committee's exhaustive, 6,000-page report should be shared with the public. News of the agreement follows an intense struggle between the CIA and lawmakers that will likely shape how history views one of the most controversial periods in the post-9/11 era, when the CIA used tactics that President Obama and others have condemned as torture in an attempt to elicit information about terrorism.

"I am pleased the CIA and Obama administration have agreed that a portion of the report should be made public," Feinstein said in a statement. "The committee will vote shortly to adopt and release the executive summary, findings and conclusions which will reflect the CIA's comments as appropriate."

The report is the product of three year's work and $40 million in preparation costs. Ever since its completion there's been strong disagreement among intelligence officials and lawmakers over how much information the public should be allowed to read, in large part because there's no agreement on the findings. Officials familiar with the report tell The Cable it is deeply flawed and inaccurate, but others consider it the most authoritative account of one of the darkest chapters in the CIA's history. One year ago today, Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats voted unanimously to approve the report's findings. Nearly all Republicans voted against it. The CIA also believes the report contains significant inaccuracies.

While the outcome of the committee's vote to release the report remains uncertain, opposing sides appear to agree that the report can't be concealed forever.

"CIA and Committee staff have had extensive dialogue on this issue and the agency is prepared to work with the Committee to determine the best way forward on potential declassification," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.

Democrats on the committee, such as Sen. Ron Wyden, tell The Cable they are making a concerted effort to push the report across the finish line.

"Without the significant facts and analysis provided by this report, the public debate over these interrogation techniques will continue to consist of opponents like myself saying torture doesn't work, and some former CIA officials claiming that it does," said Wyden. "The public needs to see an infusion of facts so they can make up their minds for themselves and finally put this debate to rest."

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Udall says the Colorado Democrat will raise questions about the report's declassification on Tuesday during a confirmation hearing for the CIA's general counsel.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly said "by using torture to interrogate our enemies," the country compromised its core values. However, he has largely avoided weighing in on the usefulness of enhanced interrogation techniques in counterterrorism efforts.

On Friday, the White House applauded cooperation between the CIA and the Senate panel. "We believe that it is important for the Committee and the CIA to continue working together to address issues associated with the report - including factual questions," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable. "The President has made clear that the program that is the subject of the committee's work is inconsistent with our values as a Nation."

Officials who are familiar with the report's conclusions say that it offers detailed examples of how subjecting prisoners to harsh interrogations, including what human rights groups and others call torture, may have been counterproductive, and that the techniques didn't produce any leads that helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, as some current and former CIA officials claim. Feinstein said in a statement last year that the CIA had made "terrible mistakes" by interrogating suspects in secret prisons, and that the report "will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should every employ coercive interrogation techniques."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee's top Republican, has said the report contains "omissions about the history and utility of the CIA's detention program." He also said investigators compiled their findings "without interviewing any of the people involved" in the CIA program.

The CIA read the report and sent a written response to the committee in late June. The agency "agreed with a number of the study's findings, but also detailed significant errors in the study," said Boyd, the CIA spokesman. "The CIA Director has publicly stated that enhanced interrogation techniques are not an appropriate method to obtain intelligence and that their use impairs our ability to play a leadership role in the world."

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Cable that the agency's willingness to collaborate with the Senate panel is notable. "I support transparency and am glad to see CIA's willingness to work with Congress on this vital issue," he said. Ruppersberger added that he supports "the potential declassification of portions of the report as long as sources and methods are protected and our personnel in the field are not endangered."

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