A Syrian extremist militant group fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad is doing more to help than hinder his cause, diplomats have warned.
As London stages a meeting of nations looking to broker peace talks in Geneva that might see an end to the conflict, the US and others warned that Islamist rebel elements are swinging public opinion in Assad’s favour and prolonging the violence.
US State Department sources were quoted in the New York Times saying the emergence of a group linked to al-Qa’ida has been the key factor undermining peace talks so far.
The group, known as Isis (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), has intercepted foreign aid, forced moderate rebels to fight on two fronts and given credence to the regime’s claims that they are the only thing standing between the people and extremism.
“That has to give the regime comfort and confidence, and it will make the task of extracting concessions from the regime at the negotiating table more difficult,” an anonymous official told the Times.
In an interview yesterday, Assad questioned the legitimacy of the opposition leadership that would appear in Geneva.
“Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people or do they represent the country that made them?” the dictator told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV. “There are many questions about the conference.”
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that all elements of Syria's opposition need to agree to join peace talks before it could be conceivable for an end to be brought to the 31-month-old conflict.
Most of the Islamist factions fighting in Syria say they do not recognise the authority of the Syrian National Council, leading the push for a conference.
Mr Hague told the BBC: “If they are not part of a peace process in Syria then all the Syrian people have got left is to choose between Assad on the one hand and extremists.”
“The longer this conflict goes on the more sectarian it becomes and the more extremists are able to take hold and that is why we are making this renewed effort to get a Geneva peace process going.”
The US Secretary of State John Kerry has told reporters in Paris that events may have moved in Assad's favour in recent months, though he repeated previous claims that the deadlock will not be broken any time soon.
Mr Hague agreed, saying: “Neither side is winning this conflict militarily, neither is able to conquer the other.”
“We have to see it in the longer term. Syrians on all sides now need to make the effort and the compromises necessary for a peace process to work and the appetite is there among the outside powers, in the rest of the world.”