A senior figure from a Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida was allowed into the United States for a brief visit, raising questions about how much the Obama administration will compromise in the search for partners in the conflict.
Labib al Nahhas, foreign affairs director for the Islamist fighting group Ahrar al Sham, spent a few days in Washington in December, according to four people with direct knowledge of the trip and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S. relations with Syrian rebels.
His previously undisclosed visit is a delicate matter for both sides — the conservative Salafist insurgents risk their credibility with even perceived ties to the United States, and the U.S. government risks looking soft on screenings by allowing entry to a member of an Islamist paramilitary force.
National security analysts say U.S. authorities likely knew of Nahhas’ arrival. That suggests that authorities granted him entry at a time when U.S. immigration authorities face political pressure to block visitors with even tenuous ties to terrorist groups.
“They’re treating Labib al Nahhas as an individual, and it’s also useful to have someone to talk to on the other side,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who said he’d known about Nahhas’ visit
A Syrian opposition official with knowledge of the matter said it shouldn’t have been surprising that he was allowed entry because Ahrar al Sham is not among U.S.-designated terrorist groups. He said Nahhas hadn’t planned meetings with any U.S. officials but wanted to speak with “third parties” who might be able to influence policymakers.
The State Department declined to answer whether any U.S. officials knew in advance or expressed reservations about Nahhas’s presence in Washington, or whether State Department officials had assisted his entry.
By all accounts, Ahrar al Sham is much more ideologically diverse than al-Qaida, encompassing members ranging from followers of a more moderate, Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism to Salafist jihadists whose beliefs are virtually identical to al-Qaida’s.
“They’re not al-Qaida but they are Salafi jihadists — they’re just not transnational ones,” Itani said of Ahrar al Sham.
At the time of Nahhas’s visit to Washington, the Syrian opposition official said, Saudi Arabia was planning its Riyadh conference of rebel factions, and the groups wanted a chance to clear up Western misconceptions. The official said that Nahhas wasn’t just representing Ahrar al Sham, but was acting as an emissary for several rebel groups who wanted to deliver “an accurate picture of the military and political situation, since we always felt that fundamental parts of reality in Syria are missing in D.C.”
Among those tough realities, he said, is that rebel groups often have little choice but to work alongside Nusra — rejecting Nusra would mean picking a fight with one of the few reliable forces battling the regime.
“We are fighting the regime, Iranians, Hizbullah, YPG, Daesh and now the Russians,” the opposition official said. “We cannot keep opening fronts and adding enemies when our ‘allies’ are not supporting us.”
Given the State Department’s growing impatience with Syrian insurgents’ “co-mingling” with Nusra Front, it’s unclear whether Nahhas would be welcomed back to Washington.
“Straddling the jihadi-mainstream divide has served them very well earlier in the conflict,” Lund said of Ahrar al Sham, “but by now their inability to come down on one side or the other is starting to look more like weakness.”