Some of Syria’s most effective rebel forces, including at least three that previously were aligned with the U.S.-backed rebel command, have formed a new alliance with an al Qaida affiliate, a development that undermines Obama administration efforts to build up Syria’s moderate opposition and to plan negotiations for an end to the civil war.
About a dozen fighting groups announced the new confederation late Tuesday in a move that caught U.S. officials by surprise. The groups include Jabhat al Nusra, which the Obama administration has designated a terrorist organization linked to al Qaida, as well as Liwa al Tawheed, Liwa al Islam and Suqor al Sham, which were considered part of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command.
The defection to the new alliance of those groups was a particularly heavy blow to the Supreme Military Command and its Free Syrian Army because they were its biggest fighting groups, analysts said.
“These are the heavy lifters in the FSA and now they’re sitting down signing agreements with Nusra,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.
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In announcing their new confederation, the groups called for the imposition of Islamic law after the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad and specifically rejected the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the civilian group headquartered in Turkey that the Obama administration has promoted as an alternative to Assad.
Referring to themselves as the Islamist Coalition, the group’s “Communique Number 1” said that the U.S.-backed opposition coalition “does not represent us nor do we recognize it.”
The group called “on all military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that . . . is based on Shariah (Islamic) law, making it the sole source of legislation.”
The emergence of the Islamist bloc comes just as U.S. officials were touting more unity and diversity within the Istanbul-based Syrian Opposition Coalition, whose leaders are at the United Nations this week trying to convince world powers to send more money and weapons to the rebel cause. That could become a much harder sale now that the Supreme Military Command has lost its biggest militias.
The development also doesn’t bode well for the State Department’s plans for a joint U.S.-Russian peace summit on Syria, or at least a conference that would be viewed as credible by Syrians and regional stakeholders.
“Here you have radicals doing something that conceivably could give them more of a claim to a seat at the table, while because of their odious ideology and other reasons, these aren’t the people the United States wants to see at the table,” said Paul Pillar, who served as the U.S. intelligence community’s top Middle East analyst and now teaches security studies at Georgetown University.
The Islamist coalition is not likely to affect negotiations over a Security Council resolution that would require the Assad government to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles. The Reuters news agency quoted Russia’s deputy foreign minister as saying an agreement is expected in the next two days. How to enforce any resolution has been an issue and may have played into the rebels’ decision to announce a new coalition, out of frustration that American interests in Syria appear to have become focused on the issue of chemical weapons and not the violence of the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless.
The groups signing into the new alliance operate mostly in northern Syria, which has been wracked in recent weeks by tensions and gunfights between groups loyal to the Supreme Military Command and Syria’s other al Qaida branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, known by the acronym ISIS. ISIS was not included the new alliance.
Thirteen rebel factions were signatories to the Islamist alliance’s announcement, which quickly went viral in online Syrian forums and was accompanied by snapshots of members of the different groups posing together as comrades.
“To be very open and frank, it is a problem that the opposition counts extremists and terrorist groups, and I don’t shy away from using the word terrorist groups. That’s a fact,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told McClatchy in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. “And of course it’s weakening – it is weakening – the opposition.”
The wording of the Islamist announcement appeared designed to counter the perception – promoted by U.S. officials – that the rebel movement is secular and seemed to be intended to take advantage of frustrations that the United States and other foreign governments had dangled promises of intervention on behalf of the rebel forces, only to renege out of concern of being sucked into endless warfare.
The statement called for a rejection of Western military aid, demanded that Islamic law be “the sole source of legislation” for any future government, and said that any post-Assad leadership must come from “those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices” – a clear rejection of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles backed by rival Persian Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Analysts said only time will tell whether the Islamist alliance can hold, noting that the rebels suffer from many of the same internal divisions that plague their political counterparts. Two small groups among the 13 already have dropped out, explaining that they attended the discussion of an alliance but weren’t part of the signing, said Landis, the Oklahoma professor.
Still, analysts of jihadist movements say, the defiantly militant, anti-Western tone of the initial statement signaled a serious shift in the nature of the opposition that’s likely to linger even if groups come and go from the bloc. Charles Lister, who monitors jihadist movements for the London-based defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, called the agreement a potentially pivotal moment for the rebellion.
“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,” Lister wrote in an analysis sent to journalists. “Having toed politically pragmatic lines since their emergence onto the scene in Syria, the key Islamist middle-ground players – Liwa al Tawheed, Liwa al Islam and Suqor al Sham – have finally made clear where their allegiances lie, with huge implications for the moderate opposition.”
The burn for U.S. officials is that finally, after months of stagnation and a merry-go-round of leadership changes, the Syrian Opposition Coalition had taken steps toward becoming a more cohesive and organized group. It had expanded membership to better represent the Kurdish minority, formed an interim governing body and established committees to deal with transition issues and to make preparations to attend the Geneva peace summit, which doesn’t yet have a date.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to discuss sensitive Syria diplomacy, told reporters in New York that U.S. officials were discussing with Syrian Opposition Coalition leaders the significance of the Islamist alliance.
The official said the ideological split among the rebel forces “is not new, but we’re still working with the opposition and talking to them about what this means and how we can strengthen the moderate opposition and continue to help them.”
The only potential benefit from the Islamist turn of the rebel forces is that it will force the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has shied away from committing to any talks without the precondition of Assad’s ouster, to show up at Geneva. That would be at least a cosmetic victory for the United States and its allies, who’ve yet to identify a credible partner more than two years into the conflict.
If the coalition remains opposed to talks involving regime figures, however, it runs the risk of being discarded by the U.S. as “a lost cause,” said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who monitors Syria for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research center.
“It’s being marginalized on the ground, it’s losing influence, seeing the hardliners making military gains, territorially,” Joshi said. “The only thing they have left is diplomatic legitimacy.”