x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Islamist rebel groups refuse to be part of Syria's opposition coalition

Islamist rebel groups in Syria have rejected the country's new opposition coalition, saying they have formed an 'Islamic state' in Aleppo.

BEIRUT // Islamist rebel groups in Syria have rejected the country's new opposition coalition, saying they have formed an "Islamic state" in Aleppo.

The statement, made in a video posted on a militant website, appears to be a reaction to the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, formed on November 11 in Qatar to unify groups trying to topple the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad. The coalition is led by a popular Muslim cleric and is seen as a way to counter the growing influence of Islamic extremists in the 20-month old rebellion that has claimed more than 36,000 lives.

Yesterday the coalition's leader, Moaz Al Khatib, said the bloc would be based in Egypt.

"It has been decided that the Syrian National Coalition will have its headquarters in Egypt," Mr Al Khatib said after talks with the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr.

Mr Amr said Egypt was willing to "offer any assistance to the coalition in the coming phase".

The Syrian uprising started as a seris of peaceful protests in March 2011. But it quickly morphed into a war that has deepened sectarian divisions in the country. Many of those trying to depose Mr Al Assad are Sunnis, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, followers of a Shiite-offshoot sect.

Syria's political opposition has struggled to prove its relevance amid the civil war under a leadership largely made up of academics and exiled politicians. With its relaunch as a new organisation this month, it has taken a different tack by choosing Mr Al Khatib as its head. The 52-year-old cleric-turned-activist is respected by groups from across the political spectrum and has preached sectarian unity.

In Cairo, Mr Al Khatib said that the coalition would consider the concerns of those Syrian factions who have not joined the new umbrella group.

"We will listen to our brothers who have not joined this alliance," he said. "We will keep in contact with them for more cooperation in the interest of the Syrian people."

The statement by 13 radical factions late on Sunday suggested the groups - including the Al Qaeda-inspired Jabhat Al Nusra - are suspicious of the new coalition. They rejected what they said was a "foreign project" and declared the northern city of Aleppo, where many radical groups have been fighting, an "Islamic state".

Italy recognised the National Coalition as "legitimate representatives" of the Syrian people, the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, told reporters in Doha yesterday.

"We have recognised the coalition that brings together the various opposition groups as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people," Mr Monti said.

France had previously been the only Western country to recognise the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The European Union appeared ready to call it a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, an EU official said yesterday.

Foreign ministers from the EU's 27 countries, meeting in Brussels, were expected to take such a step, according to an insider with knowledge of the talks.