As Syria's civil war gets ever more complex amid a broad regional
confrontation between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, the United States
raised the prospect of Assad's sponsor Iran, the Shi'ite power long
at odds with Washington and its Sunni Arab allies, playing some role
in this month's Syrian peace talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tehran still should not take
formal part in the peace conference scheduled to start on Lake
Geneva on January 22 because it had not endorsed a 2012 accord
calling for a new Syrian leadership. But he said there might be ways
that Iran could "contribute from the sidelines".
There is little prospect of a rapid end to the Syrian conflict but
the resurgence in Iraq of mutual enemy al Qaeda, and a recent
rapprochement with the new Iranian president, have raised
speculation about a common effort between the United States and
Tehran to contain instability in the region.
Kerry, visiting Jerusalem, pledged to help Iraq's Shi'ite-led
government fight al Qaeda but said Washington was not considering
sending U.S. troops, two years after they withdrew.
SYRIA FACTION FIGHTING
Syrian opposition activists said the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL), allied to al Qaeda and featuring foreign jihadists
among its commanders, had pulled back on Sunday from strongpoints
including al-Dana and Atma in Idlib province and that fighters from
the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham moved in.
"The Islamic State is pulling out without a fight. Its fighters are
taking their weapons and heavy guns," activist Firas Ahmad said. He
added that the ISIL fighters headed in the direction of Aleppo,
where Assad's troops have stepped up pressure on rebel forces who
captured the city 18 months ago.
Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIL
fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra
Front, whose commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign. Nusra
coordinates with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Syrian Islamist
brigades that includes Ahrar al-Sham.
Syrian opposition supporters and diplomats said that, despite days
of skirmishing in the northwest between ISIL and other rebel
factions, a broad alliance involving these groups seemed to be
holding in the desert east of the country.
"There is certainly competition between ISIL and the other Islamist
militants, but it does not appear there is full-scale
confrontation," a Middle Eastern diplomat said.
The strength of radical Islamists, nearly three years after popular
revolt broke out against Assad, has caused Western powers to hold
back on practical support for the rebels despite endorsing the goal,
shared with Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of
overthrowing the Syrian president.
QAEDA IN IRAQ
Across the border in Iraq, ISIL seized key towns last week,
confronting Sunni tribal forces and the Iraqi government and making
their greatest territorial gains since U.S. troops ended a nine-year
occupation of Iraq in December 2011.
On Sunday, Baghdad officials met Sunni tribal leaders to seek their
help against a bid by ISIL to consolidate a hold on desert territory
straddling the Iraqi-Syrian frontier and Iraq's U.S.-armed air force
struck the city of Ramadi, killing 25 Islamists, according to local
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has secured pledges of more U.S.
military aid, despite concerns in Washington that his government has
failed to share power with the once-dominant Sunni minority and has
helped Iran channel supplies to Assad.
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In the eastern Syrian province of Raqqa, Sunni Islamist activist
Khaled Abu Alwalid said that the presence of Iraqi Shi'ite militia
fighters in Syria was galvanising a common front against them by
ISIL and other Islamist factions.
"This is a religious war encompassing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,"
Like Iraq, Lebanon has seen violence linked to the Syrian war, and
its Hezbollah militia, backed by Iran, has sent fighters into Syria
to help Assad. There were clashes on Sunday in the Lebanese city of
Tripoli between Sunnis and members of the Shi'ite-linked Alawite
sect to which Assad belongs.
SYRIA PEACE TALKS
Western powers preparing for the peace conference in Montreux later
this month have been pressing other opposition groups, friendlier to
Western interests, to resolve their own factional disputes and take
a full role in negotiations.
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a Western-backed umbrella body
formed largely by exiles, was meeting in Istanbul to elect new
leaders and vote, probably on Monday, on whether to take part in
talks with Assad's representatives.
Ahmad al-Jarba was re-elected as SNC leader for a second six-month
term, defeating former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab, a senior
coalition member told Reuters.
Many in the SNC are concerned that it could jeopardise what support
it enjoys inside Syria by taking part in the talks with Assad's
delegates at what is known by the U.N. organizers as "Geneva 2" — a
sequel to international talks in Geneva in 2012.
While the Islamic Front and others fighting in Syria have ruled out
negotiations, the SNC has said it would take part on certain
conditions — though few of these, such as the release of prisoners
and more aid to rebel areas, have been met.
Nonetheless, senior SNC member Anas Abdah told Reuters the Coalition
was under pressure to take part in talks, if only to avoid losing
the goodwill and support of Western powers: "The only clear
political option is Geneva 2," he said.
"If we don't explore this option, the international community might
lose interest and not do anything."
Monzer Makhous, the SNC envoy in Paris, said: "There cannot be a
political solution from Geneva because the terms set out by the
international community at previous meetings have not been met ...
But at this stage we have no other option."
(Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul;
writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Kevin Liffey)
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