Islamist fighters in Syria shove US-friendly rebels aside

The Syrian opposition the US wanted to work with has been rejected by a large number of Islamist rebel groups, some of them very radical.

Opposition fighters return from the battlefield in the Idlib province countryside, Syria, Sept. 19, 2013. For Syria's divided and beleaguered rebels, the creeping realization that there will not be a decisive Western military intervention on their behalf is a huge psychological blow.

A new coalition of Islamist rebel factions in Syria is refusing to recognize a leading Syrian political opposition group, potentially dealing a major blow to Western efforts to hold a peace conference to end more than two years of bloodshed.

The public denunciation of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and a recently planned government-in-exile by some of the most powerful and effective Islamist rebel fighting groups illustrates the disarray and bitter rivalries plaguing the ranks of the opposition.

That disarray – and the elevation of rebels who view the US with distaste – will complicate US efforts to arm the opposition. That could end up bolstering the regime, which has sought to discredit the opposition as terrorists at every turn.

“If this new alliance holds, it will likely prove the most significant turning point in the evolution of Syria’s anti-government insurgency to date,” says Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

Abdelaziz Salame, the top political leader of Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo, announced the alliance in an online statement. Underlining the Islamist credentials of the coalition, Salame said that the opposition, both military and civilian, would operate within a unified “Islamic framework” and use “the rule of [Islamic law as] the sole source of legislation."

He added that the rebels “do not recognize” any future government formed outside Syria, insisting that the forces fighting inside the country should be represented by “those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices.”

Among the factions that signed the agreement are the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and the Liwa Suqour al-Sham. A notable missing name was the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the word for Levant in Arabic is "Sham," leading to the common acronym for the group, ISIS). It is perhaps the most hardline of the Islamist factions, and its omission is seen as a deliberate attempt by the other Islamist factions to marginalize it

The statement reflects longstanding hostility toward the exiled Syrian political opposition, from both the opposition activists in the early stages of the revolt and later from the rebels when the uprising morphed into civil war. The Turkey-based SNC has been wracked by divisions and political infighting that has left it weakened and scorned by the rebels inside Syria, many of whom accuse the body of being irrelevant and a tool of foreign powers.

The Syrian National Coalition’s growing disenfranchisement from the core of the fight to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad  is recognized by Kamal Labwani, a member of the coalition. With rival hardline factions controlling much of northern Syria, the only part of the country firmly under rebel control, members of the SNC have been unable to enter the country. 

“We as a coalition are very removed from the ground now,” he says. "There is no geographic spot we can enter in the liberated areas. The situation is worse than you can ever imagine.”

Syrian rebel groups had expected to capitalize on President Barack Obama’s pledge to bomb Syrian regime targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area on Aug. 21 that left more than 1,000 people dead. But the bombing campaign was abruptly put on hold when the US and Russia reached an agreement in which Syria would hand over its chemical weapon arsenal for destruction.

The shift to diplomacy dismayed the rebels, who had been hoping to glean a battlefield advantage from a punishing campaign of air strikes against Syrian army and military depots.

That sense of grievance was further compounded by the subsequent decision of the Syrian National Council to provisionally agree to attend a peace conference in Geneva, overturning its previous demand for Assad’s departure as a precondition for talks.

“The prospect of Geneva taking place while the regime’s terror campaign against populated areas continues and while the US and Russia consolidate a chemical agreement that the opposition sees as consolidating Assad’s power may have been critical factors,” says Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, referring to the timing of the statement from the Islamist factions.

Hof, who previously served as the Obama administration’s liaison with the Syrian opposition, said that this latest sign of disunity within opposition ranks was a “victory for the Assad regime, which hopes to complicate any serious US effort to arm opposition moderates, one that illustrates the fundamental co-dependency of the regime and its jihadist enemies of choice.”

Certainly, the sight of his enemies squabbling will give heart to Assad and his supporters, who have gained some breathing space two weeks after they were preparing for a destructive US-led attack.

Still, many details about the coordination of the new alliance have been left unexplained. Some of the co-signatories, such as Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam, are members of the Supreme Military Council, headed by Gen. Selim Idris, which serves as the military component of the National Coalition. It is unclear how those Islamist factions will be able to reconcile their rejection of the Syrian National Coalition if they choose to remain within the military council.

Hof predicted that Idris will seek to break apart the new alliance, but “he has an uphill battle.”

“The decision of President Obama in July 2012 to leave to others the arming, equipping and training of rebel forces inadvertently helped the regime and private donors ease the way for extremists to implant themselves in Syria,” he says. “Inaction, just as surely as action, has consequences.”

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