BEIRUT – U.S. hopes of winning more influence over Syria’s fractious rebel movement faded Wednesday after 11 of the biggest armed factions repudiated the Western-backed opposition coalition and announced the formation of a new alliance dedicated to creating 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 efforts by Washington to provide lethal aid to “moderate” rebels fighting to topple Syrian 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 new 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 the Assad regime.
Gen. Salim Idriss, head of Syria’s moderate Supreme Military Council and the chief conduit for U.S. aid to the rebels, cut short a visit to Paris after the announcement of the alliance overnight Tuesday. He was to head to Syria later Thursday to attempt to persuade the factions to reconsider, according to the council’s spokesman, Louay al-Mokdad.
The new alliance stressed that it was not abandoning Idriss’ council, only the exiled political opposition coalition, which it said “does not represent us.”
The creation of the bloc nonetheless leaves the 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 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.”
Mokdad acknowledged that by aligning themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra, the other rebel factions could jeopardize hopes of receiving outside military help just as Washington says it is starting to step up its support after more than a year of hesitation. But, Mokdad 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 Wednesday, 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 Assad is killing us, all the West is betraying us, and they want to negotiate with the regime over our blood.’ ”
Abu Hassan, a spokesman for the Tawheed Brigade in Aleppo, echoed those sentiments, citing rebel disappointment with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama over its failure to go ahead with threatened airstrikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus last month, as well as its decision to strike a deal with Russia over ways to negotiate a solution.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is a Syrian military formation that fought the regime and played an active role in liberating many locations,” Hassan said. “So we don’t care about the stand of those who don’t care about our interests.”
The statement issued by the rebel groups and read on video by a Tawheed commander attributed their decision mostly to dissatisfaction with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, made up of exiled politicians who have struggled to win support among Syrians in the country even as they have courted the international community.
But the Islamist alliance’s creation also coincides with growing concerns among mainstream rebels about the rapid ascent of the other main al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which expanded into Syria from Iraq earlier this year and has recently taken up arms against other anti-regime factions to extend its control over rebel territory.
Although the statement did not mention the Iraqi group, Hassan acknowledged that the new alliance is also intended to confront “anyone who might harm the security and safety of the Syrian citizens in the liberated areas, and solve differences using weapons instead of going to court.” He was referring to the recent battles in which the ISIL wrested control of the northern Aleppo provincial town of Azaz from the local rebel faction, the Northern Storm brigade. There have been other clashes in recent weeks, in the eastern cities of Raqqah, Deir el-Zour and several towns where the Iraqi group has succeeded in trouncing more moderate groups.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which was established by a Syrian commander from the ISIL in 2011, regards itself as less extreme even as it acknowledges its allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. It has also become one of the chief victims of the Iraqi group’s expansion.
Although its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, has resisted ISIL efforts to merge with Jabhat al-Nusra, many al-Nusra fighters left to join the Iraqi group, and his fighters have been forced to withdraw from a number of towns they had controlled.
In recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has been quietly recruiting support for an effort to confront the ISIL, according to two rebel fighters in northern Syria.