US weighs meeting with hardline Islamists in Syria
MANILA - Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday "it is possible" the United States would meet with a newly formed Syrian rebel alliance that wants to replace the regime with an Islamic state.
"The United States has not met yet to date with the Islamic Front. There has not been a discussion," he told a news conference while visiting the Philippines.
"It's possible that it could take place," he added, after reports that US officials were preparing to meet this week in Turkey with the Islamic Front.
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.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said earlier that if a meeting with the Front did take place, the United States would expect the return of its stolen non-lethal assistance.
Washington has said 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.
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.
Kerry stressed Tuesday that the United States and other nations backing the Syrian opposition were working to "broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people" who would be represented at a peace conference expected next month in Geneva.
"That obviously does not include the radical extremists and the worst elements who are at some degree on the ground," he added.
Kerry said Washington would continue to push for the peace conference.
"There is no alternative other than continued fighting, continued destruction, continued growth in the refugee population, continued potential disintegration of a whole country and the continued increase of the numbers of radical extremists who are appearing on the scene to fill the void," he said.