PARIS — A senior State Department official said Monday that an al-Qaida-affiliated rebel group was undermining the chances for a successful international effort to end the war in Syria.
By challenging moderate Syrian rebels, the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was forcing them to fight on two fronts and divert resources from their battle with the government of President Bashar Assad, the official said.
By presenting an extremist face to the world, the official said, the group was also aiding Assad’s efforts to portray the conflict in Syria as a tug-of-war between the government and jihadists.
“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,” said the official, who declined to be identified in accordance with the State Department’s protocol for briefing reporters on active diplomacy.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Paris on Monday for the first of three days of Middle East diplomacy, is scheduled to meet with diplomats from 10 nations in London on Tuesday to discuss preparations for a Syria peace conference. The conference is expected to be held next month in Geneva.
A principal goal of the Geneva meeting is the establishment of a transitional government that would not include Assad.
But the senior State Department official said fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, were hurting the peace talks’ prospects and had also hampered the flow of U.S. and other foreign assistance across the border to the moderate resistance inside Syria.
“It has been very disruptive to our cross border efforts — very disruptive,” the official said.
As if to illustrate Assad’s growing confidence, the Syrian president recently gave an interview to a Beirut television station in which he indicated that he hopes to run for re-election next year.
Even as the Obama administration has pointed to the growing role of extremists in Syria, its policy has continued to be a target for critics, who complain that the United States has offered the moderate Syrian opposition too little, too late. U.S. officials have not announced any major new efforts to provide arms and other forms of military support to the moderate opposition it is hoping will counteract the role of extremists.
Kerry was also scheduled to meet Monday with Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, before briefing senior officials from the Arab League on the status of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
During his Tuesday meetings in London, Kerry will gather with the London 11, the group of nations backing the moderate Syria opposition. Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the political wing of the moderate Syria opposition, is expended to attend the meeting.