Split Weakens U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebels as Islamists Gain

Rebel Fighters in Aleppo
Rebel fighters run behind a barricade in Aleppo. Photographer: JM Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. and Russian efforts to set the stage for Syrian peace talks suffered a blow as the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition was repudiated by more than a dozen rebel factions.

The break by the rebel groups shows the growing power of militant Islamic fighters and hampers the U.S. effort to position moderate Syrian opposition leaders to lead a transition from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It also muddies the effort to arm and train moderate rebel groups while keeping advanced weapons out of the hands of extremists.

It’s now uncertain what role the opposition coalition will be able to play in peace talks that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seek to convene in Geneva as early next month.

The militants’ rejection of the main U.S.-backed opposition coalition “weakens it significantly,” Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said yesterday.

As many as 13 rebel groups issued a statement saying the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition “does not represent us” and that they plan to unite under Islam’s sharia law, according to a video on Google Inc.’s YouTube showing a leader of one brigade, Abdulaziz Salameh, reading the document aloud.

Arms Impact

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been an advocate for U.S. military aid to moderate factions, said the shift by rebel factions that had been aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the opposition coalition, forecloses providing them with U.S. weapons.

“How can I send arms now that they’ve aligned themselves with al-Qaeda?” he said today in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” that airs this weekend.

The U.S., France, the U.K., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other nations have struggled to unify and strengthen Syria’s moderate opposition, encountering setbacks involving leadership, ethnic representation and the role of expatriate Syrians. The prospects for a peace process rest in part on the existence of an opposition that’s representative of Syria’s diverse population and capable of negotiating, which now is in doubt.

‘Big Deal’

“It is a very big deal,” Aron Lund, a Swedish journalist and author who focuses on the Syrian opposition, wrote on the blog Syria Comment. He said the action diminishes the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, the group organizing rebel fighters backed by the U.S., France, the U.K. and some Persian Gulf nations.

The groups that broke away constitute a major part of the northern rebel force, with some of the largest armed groups in the country in total control of “at least a few tens of thousands fighters,” Lund said.

The breakaway alliance “represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream FSA’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hard-line Islamist forces,” Lund wrote on the blog, which is maintained by Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Bad Timing

There are about 1,200 opposition factions in Syria, which highlights the challenge of sorting secular moderates from radical Islamists to provide support to the anti-Assad effort, said David Shedd, deputy head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, in July. Kerry told Congress this month that extremist factions, such as those affiliated with al-Qaeda, account for less than a quarter of rebel forces.

The announcement of the new militant alliance comes at a particularly bad moment for U.S. goals, as fighting is flaring among rebel groups in territory under opposition control. Moderate fighters are enmeshed in some of the hardest fighting yet against extremist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The battles, which extend along the border between Turkey and Syria, from the southern point near the Iraq border to Aleppo in the north, mean the moderate rebels are fighting on two fronts, against the extremists as well as Assad’s forces. The official said the extremists are doing the government’s work now, a point that opposition members made in a Sept. 24 meeting with Kerry on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

‘Important Brigades’

The new opposition entity, which lacks an official name and has been dubbed the “Islamic Coalition,” includes the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and three less militant brigades that seceded from the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition and its military wing, led by Supreme Military Commander General Salim Idriss, who defected from the Syrian Army.

“These are important brigades,” said Khalid Saleh, an opposition coalition spokesman.

“We believe there’s a lot of frustration among these brigades,” Saleh said in a telephone interview. “They believe the international community has let them down, that they’re on their own fighting this war.”

Idriss cut short a trip to France, where he was trying to get more support for the coalition’s Supreme Military Council, said Saleh.

The State Department official said Idriss needs more help to undermine recruiting by the extremists and that the President Barack Obama administration is looking at what more that the U.S. can do. He didn’t offer details.

Bullet Shortage

Saleh painted a grim picture of the conditions Free Syrian Army fighters face, “sometimes losing men on the field because they run out of bullets.”

The U.S. is aware of the breakaway groups’ announcement and is discussing its impact, said a second State Department official, who asked to not be named, citing administration policy.

The opposition coalition’s links to the outside world are part of its problem inside Syria, said the first State Department official. The group is located in Istanbul and Gaziantep, Turkey, not inside Syria.

Kerry discussed the need for the group’s leadership to build credibility inside Syria during talks in New York with opposition coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, the official said.

Kerry and Jarba discussed the potential for peace talks with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative on Syria. Today, the opposition coalition plans to draw attention to its cause by holding an event hosted by France for leaders attending the UN General Assembly.

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