BEIRUT: Thousands of Syrian rebels have broken with the Western-backed coalition to form a new Islamist force that may pressure President Bashar Al Assad but also undermine the West’s hopes of putting its friends in his place.
Ever more divided on a battlefield where Assad’s better armed troops have been gaining ground, allies of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were among 13 disparate rebel factions to disown the exile leadership and support an Islamic alliance that includes the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, commanders said on Tuesday.
Details of the numbers of fighters involved and of how they would cooperate remained unclear. But, in an online video, a leader of the Islamist Tawheed Brigade said the bloc rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Western- and Saudi-backed exile administration of Ahmad Tumeh.
It is a setback for foreign leaders trying to bolster more secular rebel groups and to reassure voters sceptical of deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war. Some may think again about help for the fighters, which ranges from weaponry from the Gulf to non-lethal aid from Europe and the United States.
For Assad, already cheered by Russian diplomatic assistance that undermined US plans to bomb his forces following a poison gas attack, any more powerful rebel coalition could challenge his army’s resurgence in the field. But that could be more than offset by a weakening of international backing for his enemies.
Though some moderate Islamist fighters denied the move meant a more radical, sectarian approach, a more visible role for Islamist radicals at the expense of the SNC may bolster Assad’s argument that the alternative to his rule is a Syria run by al Qaeda.
The most hardline Islamist militant faction, Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has brought growing numbers of foreign jihadists into Syria, was not a signatory to the new pact. It was unclear, however, whether it had rejected involvement or had not been invited to join.
The 13 groups signed a statement calling for the opposition to Assad to be reorganised under an Islamic framework and to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria. Signatories range from hardliners like the Nusra Front and Ahrar Al Sham to more moderate groups such as the Tawheed Brigade and Islam Brigade.
“These forces feel that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country do not represent them, so the forces will not recognise them,” said the statement read online by Abdulaziz Salameh, the political leader of the Tawheed Brigade.
“Therefore the National Coalition and its supposed government led by Ahmad Tumeh do not represent them and will not be recognised,” he said.
Since the two-and-a-half-year-old revolt against Assad began, Syria’s opposition forces have been riven with factionalism and rivalries. There have also been tensions between Islamist groups and those that support a secular vision for a post-Assad Syria.
Gulf Arab support for the rebels has highlighted the war’s role in a broader regional confrontation between Sunnis and Shia Iran, which backs Assad and Shia Arab movements.
Rebel fighters and opposition activists rejected the portrayal of the statement as a blow to moderate forces. They saw it rather as a unification of rebels on the ground while sidelining the small but powerful ISIL.