Syrian rebels align with terrorist group, deal possible blow to U.S. influence
American hopes of winning more influence over Syria's fractious rebel movement faded on Wednesday when 11 of the biggest armed factions repudiated the Western-backed opposition coalition and announced the formation of an alliance dedicated to developing an Islamic state.
The al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is the lead signatory of the new group, which will further complicate fledgling U.S. efforts to provide lethal aid to “moderate” rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
Others include the Tawheed Brigade, the biggest Free Syrian Army unit in the northern city of Aleppo; Liwa al-Islam, the largest rebel group in the capital, Damascus; and Ahrar al-Sham, the most successful nationwide franchise of mostly Syrian Salafist fighters. Collectively, the front, which does not yet have a formal name but has been dubbed by its members the “Islamist Alliance,” claims to represent 75 percent of the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the moderate Supreme Military Council and the chief conduit for U.S. aid to the rebels, cut short a visit to Paris because of the announcement of the alliance overnight on Tuesday and will head to Syria on Thursday to attempt to persuade the factions to reconsider, according to the council's spokesman, Louay al-Mokdad.
The alliance stressed that it was not abandoning Idriss's council, only the exiled political opposition coalition, which, it said in a statement, “does not represent us.”
The establishment of the bloc nonetheless leaves Idriss's council directly responsible for just a handful of relatively small rebel units, calling into question the utility of extending aid to “moderate” rebel units, according to Charles Lister of the London-based defense consultancy IHS Janes.
If the development holds, he said, “it will likely prove the most significant turning point in the evolution of Syria's anti-government insurgency to date.”
“The scope for Western influence over the Syrian opposition has now been diminished considerably,” he added.
Mokdad acknowledged that by aligning themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra, the other rebel factions could jeopardize hopes of receiving outside military help, just as the Obama administration says it is starting to step up its support after more than a year of hesitation.
But, he said, the United States and its allies are to blame for failing repeatedly to deliver on promises to provide assistance as the death toll in Syria, now well over 100,000, steadily mounted.
U.S. comment was not immediately available.
Idriss called some of the rebel leaders, Mokdad said, “and they told us they signed this because they lost all hope in the international community.”
“They said: ‘We are really tired, Bashar al-Assad is killing us, all the West is betraying us, and they want to negotiate with the regime over our blood.' ”