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Syrian rebel coalition rejects talk offers from US

BEIRUT — The most powerful coalition of Syrian rebels, the newly formed Islamic Front, has rejected talks with U.S. officials just days after seizing control of warehouses apparently filled with American military equipment destined for more secular rival rebel groups.

The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arabic language news service, that the leadership of the Islamic Front had refused to meet with U.S. officials, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to such negotiations.

“The Islamic Front has refused to sit with us without giving any reason,” Ford said in Arabic. “We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria.”

The U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council had previously represented the main rebel factions in the international community before spectacularly collapsing in the wake of American refusal to attack the regime for repeatedly using chemical weapons against rebel and civilian targets. The perception of fickle American policymaking — along with long-promised but negligibly delivered weapons for vetted rebel groups — eventually saw the Syrian Military Council collapse amid widespread regime gains. Most of the effective rebel units eventually disbanded or joined the Islamic Front, which has called for Islamic rule in a post-regime Syria and has expressed a willingness to work with two al-Qaida-linked factions designated as terrorists by the U.S.

Last week, Islamic Front units stormed the remaining military council bases, seizing equipment donated by the U.S. and forcing its leadership to flee to Turkey. Kerry had suggested that the equipment could be returned in exchange for direct talks with the U.S., an overture that Ford said was rebuked.

Saudi Arabia is widely thought to be backing the Islamic Front, which shares many of its extreme views on Islam. That double tension between longtime allies in Riyadh and Washington prompted the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom to pen an aggressively critical opinion piece in Tuesday’s New York Times.

“We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” wrote Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz. “This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by,” he wrote.

That declaration to go things alone in Syria comes as Saudi has seen support for the rebels among many Western and regional countries evaporate amid Syrian regime military gains over the last six months. Those gains have crippled the revolution’s momentum and produced profound concern over the increasingly conservative or even radical nature of the remaining rebel groups capable of military effectiveness. The Islamic Front has denounced “foreign” influence over the rebellion and stated an end goal of an Islamic state to replace the secular regime of President Bashar Assad.

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