Syria Rebels Break Ranks in Challenge for Foreign Backers


A decision by key Syrian rebel groups to break with the Western-backed National Coalition further splinters the opposition and poses a key challenge for its international supporters, analysts say.

A new alliance sees members of the military command of the West's ally General Salim Idriss join forces with the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

It effectively guts the Syrian Military Council (SMC) that Idriss heads, and raises questions about how much influence the West and other rebel backers will now have on the ground, experts say.

And both the language of the announcement and the participation of Al-Nusra will raise fears in the West about increasing radicalization in the armed opposition.

The announcement by 13 rebel factions, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam groups, came on Tuesday night.

In a statement, they said the key opposition grouping known as the National Coalition to which Idriss belongs "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 sharia (Islamic) law, making it the sole source of legislation."

The announcement strips the mainstream rebel force of some of its most important players, according to Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

"It's extremely damaging," he told AFP.

The 13 groups "represent a very significant portion of the armed opposition and the groups that have had the most strategically valuable impact."

"The impact this will have on the ability of the SMC to represent itself as the core of the opposition will be huge."

Aron Lund, a Syria expert, agreed, in an analysis posted on the Syria Comment blog.

"It represents the rebellion of a large part of the 'mainstream Free Syrian Army' against its purported leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline forces," he wrote.

Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that last year some of the factions had refused to join Al-Nusra in a similar denunciation of the Coalition.

He said a U.S.-Russian deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, which halted U.S. plans for military action against the regime, had changed the calculus for some.

"After the chemical weapons crisis, insurgents have lost any possible hope in the benefits of an alliance with the West," he said.

While the Islamist bent of the alliance is clear, many of Syria's rebel groups use Islamist language, and Lister said he did not expect to see all the factions fall in line with Al-Nusra.

In fact, analysts pointed to a notable jihadist absence from the new grouping -- that of the Al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The group, which began as Al-Qaida's Iraqi arm and expanded into Syria earlier this year, has clashed with other rebel groups in recent months.

Lund said it was too early to see the new grouping as intended to confront ISIL, noting that nothing in its statement would be objectionable to the Al-Qaida affiliate.

"It might in fact suit them pretty well, since it weakens the hand of the Western-backed camp and adds weight to Islamist demands," he wrote, adding that ISIL could even join the alliance going forward.

But Lister said ISIL's exclusion was "not accidental."

"The fact that there's nothing in the statement that ISIL would disagree with and yet they're not included is significant in and of itself."

Pierret added that the group's Islamist language "may be a means for the signatories to bolster their Islamic credentials in anticipation of a possible future step against ISIL."

'More and more difficult to provide arms'

Even without ISIL, the alignment of formerly Western-backed brigades with Al-Nusra will pose problems for the West, much of which lists the group as a "terrorist organization."

Washington has been talking about ramping up military aid to the rebels through Idriss, but the new alliance could make that impossible.

"They've got no way forward, they've put themselves in a box. It becomes more and more difficult to provide arms," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The decision by key rebel factions to reject the National Coalition could further diminish the chances of a negotiated solution to the conflict, with the Coalition no longer able to claim it represents the opposition.

"The National Coalition wasn't exactly going anywhere anyway... (but) it's lack of meaningful control or influence is just being highlighted all the more," Sayigh said.

"Bottom line is that the issue of representation is going to be massive one."

Comments 12
Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 14:29

Most delicious news.

Thumb _mowaten_ 25 September 2013, 14:59

they realized they werent fooling anyone, so they decided to at least die fighting under their true colors: qaeda

Thumb _mowaten_ 25 September 2013, 15:25

oh sorry, i meant they are adorable little teddy bears who want to save the syrian people from decent lives.

Missing 25 September 2013, 17:59

So the syrian people aree stuck between two evils: How delicious. Guys, you are truly sick.

Thumb _mowaten_ 25 September 2013, 18:54

yea we are bad bad boys, we didnt chant "long live the syrian civil war" with you farateens

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 16:07

anonymetexasusa, '"The National Coalition wasn't exactly going anywhere anyway... (but) it's lack of meaningful control or influence is just being highlighted all the more," Sayigh said.'

Let's not forget hey hadn't the intention to join the conference anyway.

This basically in my opinion removes a certain obstacle and allows for a wider, more inclusive decision regarding Syria with its opposition parties and its peoples, instead of being dictated by Westerners via their link, i.e. the National Council. In a couple of months there probably won't be a strong enough terrorist opposition as they would be chocked, and a better solution will come via UN/Syria.

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 16:07

"The only thing the west can do now to save the moderate democratic opposition - if they want to do it - is to raise new brigades from scratch - whose members could be picked one by one from the Syrian expat community or from Syrian refugees - they would make sure that they have democratic tolerant aspirations - get western officers to train them & equip them directly "

This has been tried in Jordan from refugees/volunteers and rebels. Conspiring to create an army to topple a government/wage war is illegal, morally decadent, and would definitely NOT garner support from the world's populace, as they'd rather be constructive in creating peace rather than approving of amassing armies trained by the West to enter Syria.

Besides, the secular opposition is in shambles and can hardly recover if we were to take the current state of things. They're overpowered and outnumbered to be of any significance, even with the most sophisticated of weapons and training.

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 16:41

If I remember correctly, it was said that Al-Assad will not run for presidency in next year's elections.

And your scenario is plausible, the SAA's popularity among its citizens is quite high as of late.

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 17:10

anonymetexasusa, I'm not sure about the first statement. The KSA supported the Egyptian military (followed by others) after it had a slight falling out with Qatar and its expanding sphere of influence. Targeting the MB was wise with respect to KSA's intentions.

You and I I'm sure know how stubborn politicians may be, and when it comes to kings and princes, I believe it is even truer(way to quantify superlatives eh?). It's be hard for them to give up such an investment in Syria, as I have little doubt many will deny KSA's involvement in Syria with regards to financing, arming, and bolstering their men and potential allies, the extreme end of the opposition's spectrum, all the way to the middle.

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 17:11

It's just, you know, we can't really assess things in this manner; there are dozens of factors to consider, and dozens more we're not aware of. Only time will tell, though I suspect in the most superficial extrapolation of current events, that, having garnered the hatred of a large segment of the Syrian population while simultaneously bolstering Al-Assad's image, the opposition is between a rock and a hard place. For now, I can say things aren't in favor of the opposition.

As to your last point, personally, I think showering the public with pecuniary elements and giving in to all their demands at the start of the Saudi protests shows the worry in the Saudi kingdom, and that without reform, they face the same fate of the other autocratic regimes in the region -- turmoil, instability, hope for reform, though I suspect they'll never be replaced as they are too important for Western (and indeed global) economy.

Thumb Senescence 25 September 2013, 17:41


1- Agreed.
2- Agreed somewhat. The failure of the opposition with fervent involvement from the KSA may backfire, with the public rationalizing it as a defeat to Sunnism and adding it to the list of contemptuous handling of affairs by the monarchy. The rerouting of this possible disappointment in order to appease its population would undeniably receive criticism from neighboring countries and whoever takes note of things.
3. That's already underway though (Tunisia/Egypt/Morocco/Bahrain/etc.), and I personally don' think that qualifies as one of the main objectives. I think it's incidental.

"So in effect KSA would have achieved all 3 goals. Her investment were successful & were rewarding."
How so? If you mean by frightening the population into submission, I don't see how it would stay that way if it were the case.

Missing peace 25 September 2013, 19:04

bashar's plan is working perfectly....with the full support of M8ers