CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott
The seizure Friday by Islamists of warehouses of American aid for the moderate opposition in Syria - and the American decision to suspend further shipments - is less a loss of critical supplies than a huge wake-up call for the Obama administration that its policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad is falling apart at the seams.
The warehouses belonged to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian army, the military wing of the moderate opposition led by Gen. Salim Idriss.
The seizure by the Islamic Front, a band of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate U.S.-backed opposition but are not affiliated with al-Qaeda, illustrates the increased fracturing of the opposition and the growing influence of Islamist forces on the ground in Syria. And it's presenting the United States with a tough decision on whether to work more closely with them.
"We know al Qaeda, extremist groups, terrorist groups are involved in this, so it's not a matter of an easy choice between the good guys and the bad guys here," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.
The Islamic Front, which announced its formation last month, is an alliance that includes tens of thousands of fighters from some of Syria's most powerful Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, the Islamic Army and the Tawhid Brigade. The groups control territory in key areas across Syria and have been fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad along the critical lines of Damascus and Aleppo, among other places.
The front's formation has diminished the stature of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and its leadership abroad, the Syrian National Coalition, as leaders inside the country have sought to distance themselves from a command structure criticized for failing to serve the opposition's needs on the ground.
"The situation inside Syria shifted because Syrians feel they are on their own," says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. Noting that Iran is increasing its supply of fighters to support Assad's forces, he said, "the whole country is moving to the extreme."
A month before a peace conference aimed at creating a post-Assad government, senior Obama administration officials acknowledge with rare candor they are struggling to assess what this development means for the future of its aid and, more importantly, its broader efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.
"We know it's a big mess, but we are trying to understand what kind of mess it is," a senior administration official said.
The open warfare between the moderate opposition and Islamist forces comes amid preparations for January 22 peace talks in the lakeside Swiss town of Montreaux. It was scheduled to take place in Geneva but was moved because most Geneva hotel rooms were booked for a luxury watch exhibition. The lofty goals of the conference are to end the civil war and identify Syrians who could serve in a transitional government to run the country if Assad leaves power.
Discussions in Washington are about whether Idriss and the Supreme Military Council should be replaced by a new military structure to include some Islamist fighters. Officials said Idriss was in Turkey, where he has a residence, when his warehouses and his own headquarters in Northern Syria were seized. After going to Qatar, which has provided both money and weapons to the rebels, he is believed to be back in Turkey.
Idriss said he did leave Syria but is working at his office on the Turkish border and has not left his job. In an interview with CNN's Hala Gorani, Idriss admitted that he doesn't fully trust the Islamists but that an agreement must be reached to control the fighting and form a single command.
"The situation in the north of Syria now is very complicated and very dangerous because there are some problems between some groups, and I think we will try and we should try everything now to find a solution for this problem," he said.
A temporary halt in nonlethal aid makes sense until the situation is brought under control, Idriss said.
"It is very difficult now to pass the support to the right hands. And that's why I can understand the, let me say, freezing the support for a period of time," he said.
Still this week's events could prove critical in shaping how the United States deals with the Syrian opposition, U.S. officials said.
"It's a game changer," one senior official said. "None of us know where Idriss himself will end up. Our job now is to sew up what happened with what the reorganization of the SMC is going to be. But it's a much bigger question of what will the armed groups do in terms of their support for negotiations."
The question U.S. officials are asking themselves now is whether Washington can work with some Islamist groups, which another senior administration official said "vary on a scale of bad guys."
"It's a pivotal point," the senior official acknowledged. "We need to figure out, what extremists do we deal with? Can we work with the Islamic Front? We have talked to some groups before, but now our success in Syria may be determined on if we can we figure out how to work with them."
At a meeting in Istanbul last month with several Islamist groups, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford laid out one U.S. redline for doing business: no affiliation with al Qaeda. Although the groups have told the United States they are not aligned with al Qaeda, the allegiances of the various groups are unclear. Ford is back in Turkey this week to encourage Islamist groups to support next months' peace talks.
"This is a really, really hard sell politically to these guys," said Frederick C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who recently left the State Department where he worked on plans for a political transition in Syria. "A lot of water is under the dam. A lot of blood has been spilled. To think a collection of Islamists supporting a transitional government which includes forces who are aligned with Assad like the Alawite - I'm not sure how realistic that is."
Even as preparations for the peace conference are being made, the White House is lowering expectations for the definition of success. Speaking at a conference in Washington on Wednesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Anthony Blinken said the fear that Syria could descend into further extremism suggests a possible "convergence of interests" among world powers to prevent it. The Syria Conference, he said, would be a "test" of whether world powers would band together to back a political solution to the conflict.
But Hof said the disarray among the opposition makes the prospects for progress at the conference unlikely.
"It gets to the question why you would go for a conference like this unless you have a feasible strategy in place," he said. Pointing to Blinken's comments, he added, "at least they have their expectations under control.
Some in the Obama administration question whether the decision not to arm the moderate rebels earlier has led to the increased influence of extremist groups.
"There are questions as to whether we wouldn't be here if we didn't take more aggressive steps, " a senior administration official said.
Whether it is too late to change the battlefield, officials say, the same challenges to more robust support remains.
"What can we legally do; what is the cost? What do the American people think," the official said. "The situation has changed but we still have the same challenges. And these challenges are compounded by new added level of complexity as the opposition is not just battling Assad, but each other. Even if we had the resources, there is no black or white."
CNN's Hala Gorani, and Ana Bickford contributed to this report.