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Islamist Bloc in Syria Rejects National Coalition

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra (file photo)

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra (file photo)

More than a dozen rebel factions - including some of the biggest armed groups in the Syrian insurgency – have said they are forming a new Islamist bloc and will no longer recognize the leadership of Western-backed political exiles.

The move underscores the increasing disarray among the Syrian rebels, who have been battling for nearly three years to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Analysts say it will hamper long-running efforts of the West to boost the insurgency’s exiled political leadership and to shape a more moderate rebel military force inside Syria.

Analyst Aron Lund says the new alliance against the political leadership of the Syrian National Coalition guts Western strategy on Syria.

“It represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream Free Syrian Army’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces,” said Lund, who has written studies on the rebels for U.S. and European think tanks.

The Syrian National Coalition did not respond to VOA’s requests for an interview.
The announcement of the new bloc came online on Tuesday with a video statement from Abdelaziz Salame, one of the leaders of the mainly Aleppo-based brigade Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the largest in the FSA.

Salame declared that 13 rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, had agreed to form the new bloc and no longer would consider the National Coalition as representing the rebellion.

The groups are committed, he said, to fighting under an “Islamic framework” and want to establish a post-Assad Syria based on “the rule of sharia.”

Aside from the Tawhid brigade, the backers of the new bloc include other sizeable FSA-aligned battalions such as Liwa al-Islam, and Suqor al-Sham, bringing them into a new formal alliance with hardline Islamist brigades.

Notably, the alliance excludes, the larger al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has been battling some FSA units in northern Syria. The exclusion, analysts, sets up a split among jihadist factions and further complicates the opposition dynamic in Syria.

Split to hamper western efforts to resolve crisis

Still, the defection from the Syrian National Coalition of large brigades will seriously deplete the strength of the FSA, analysts say, undermining its military reach and the authority of its overall military head, General Salim Idriss, a defector from the Syrian army.

“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,” said Charles Lister, an insurgency analyst with the British defense consultancy IHS Jane’s.

“Having towed politically pragmatic lines since their emergence onto the scene in Syria, the key Islamist middle-ground players – Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqor al-Sham – have finally made clear where their allegiances lie, with huge implications for the moderate opposition,” he said.

The formation of the new alliance will likely add severe complications to U.S. efforts to persuade rebels and leading opposition activists to attend any round-table negotiations for an end to a civil war.

In the wake of Mr. Assad’s acceptance earlier this month of a Russian-brokered deal to surrender his chemical weapons, the western nations had hoped to kick-start broad peace talks in Geneva.

The head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, said his group would be prepared to attend and wants a transitional government to end the conflict in the country.

But rebel fighters have warned that while Mr. Assad remains president they will not engage in political talks and have long chafed at the SNC’s attempts at diplomacy.

Rebels had counted on U.S. strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons to help them tip the battlefield their way and to end the military momentum Mr. Assad’s forces have enjoyed since the early summer.

With frustrations building, rebel infighting has worsened this month with serious fighting erupted between al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists, Islamists and Kurdish militants in in several strategic towns across northern Syria.

Analysts say the battles underline growing turmoil among the anti-Assad insurgents.

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