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US not against meeting Syria's Islamic Front

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The United States has not ruled out meeting with a newly formed Syrian rebel alliance, a senior US official said Monday, even though the group wants to replace the regime with an Islamic state.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf did not however confirm weekend reports that US officials were preparing to meet this week in Turkey with the Islamic Front.

"We wouldn't rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front," she told reporters, adding she had "nothing to announce at this time."

Six opposition groups came together last month to form the Islamic Front, which now represents Syria's largest armed opposition grouping some tens of thousands of fighters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, the Front overran the northern headquarters and two warehouses belonging to the US-backed Syrian Free Army, causing Washington to cut off non-lethal aid to the main secular military opposition in the north.

"If at some point we discuss this with the Islamic Front, we would expect that non-lethal assistant be returned," Harf stressed.

She did not confirm either that any such talks would be led by the US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, who has been actively working behind the scenes to shore up the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council.

Washington has stressed that it is already meeting with a broad section of Syrian groups to try to end the nearly three-year war through negotiations, but has explicitly ruled out any contacts with groups linked to Al-Qaeda or designated as terrorists by the US.

Harf said the Islamic Front was "an alliance of prominent Islamic groups in the Syrian opposition," adding "we can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists."

Last month, the Islamic Front said that it wanted to set up an Islamic state in Syria, but insisted it would protect minorities and not create an "oppressive, authoritarian system."

Syria's uprising began as a series of peaceful pro-democracy protests in March 2011, but a brutal regime crackdown ignited a full-blown civil war in which hardline Islamist groups have taken on an increasingly prominent role.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a weekend interview that Syria was now "a huge sectarian... mess."

Washington has not yet resumed supplies of non-lethal military aid to the rebels in northern Syria, fearing the supplies might fall into the wrong hands.

But Harf again stressed that "in no way this is indicative of some sort of drop in support" for the opposition and its Supreme Military Council.

The US meanwhile condemned a Syrian regime air raid on Monday which unleashed barrels packed with explosives on Aleppo, killing 76 people.

"The use of those bombs further underscores the brutality of the regime and the lengths it will go to attack and kill its own people," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding the barrel bombs were designed "to cause mass casualties."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131216/us-not-against-meeting-syrias-islamic-front