x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrian rebel factions reject legitimacy of opposition coalition

Rebel statement is the latest blow to the opposition Syrian National Council and its fighting wing, the Free Syria Army, whose moderate forces have struggled to gain prominence over more effective extremist elements such as Al Nusra Front.

Free Syrian Army fighters fire their weapons as they take cover during clashes with what activists say are government forces in the countryside of Aleppo on Wednesday. Hamid Khatib / Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters fire their weapons as they take cover during clashes with what activists say are government forces in the countryside of Aleppo on Wednesday. Hamid Khatib / Reuters

A group of Syria’s strongest rebel factions has rejected the authority of the western-backed opposition in exile and has called for the rebellion to be organised under an “Islamic framework”.

Their statement is the latest blow to the opposition Syrian National Council and its fighting wing, the Free Syria Army, whose moderate forces have struggled to gain prominence over more effective extremist elements such as Al Nusra Front.

Al Nusra, a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, was one of the thirteen rebel factions named as signatories to the statement released on Tuesday.

Several moderate rebel Islamist groups that had previously worked with the Istanbul-based SNC were also among the signatories saying that the rebel factions no longer recognised the transitional government led by Ahmad Tumeh, elected as prime minister this month.

The 13 factions “feel that all groups formed abroad without having returned to the country do not represent them, and they will not recognise them”, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, political chief of the rebel Liwa Al Tawhid brigade, said in the statement.

The signatories “call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Sharia, which should be the sole source of legislation”, he added.

The video statement was posted on several websites and social media sites associated with some of the rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Abdul Rahman Al Haj, a member of the SNC general secretariat, said the coalition did not yet have official position on the statement, but he called it “very dangerous”.

“Maybe they feel that no one discussed with them about this [transitional] government,” he said.

“We will try to open a discussion and will try to make negotiations with them,” he said, adding that the SNC would not negotiate with Al Nusra, which the United States has labelled a terrorist group.

The announcement comes on the back of heavy fighting between moderate rebels and extremist factions that has undermined the rebel campaign against the Assad regime. The uprising against Mr Al Assad began in 2011 with peaceful protests but degenerated into a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

The most recent clashes in northern and eastern Syria pitted Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also linked to Al Qaeda, against moderate FSA fighters led by Gen Salim Idriss.

“It’s the hardest fighting we have ever seen between Salim Idriss’s elements of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” a US official said on Tuesday, speaking after the US secretary of state John Kerry met SNC president Ahmad Jarba. “It’s a slog.”

“I would even go so far as to say that the extremists are actually doing the government’s work now, which was a point that the opposition made in the meeting with the secretary,” said the official.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, called the rejection of the SNC the “most significant turning point in the evolution of Syria’s anti-government insurgency to date” and said the moderate opposition could be significantly weakened.

The video statement seemed to confirm that the exiled opposition is “far removed from what has become an increasingly Islamist-led insurgency,” Mr Lister wrote in an analysis for his organisation.

Major figures from the SNC have been in New York this week for the UN General Assembly, where they have urged more international support for the opposition. Mr Jarba was expected to give a news conference late yesterday.

Also yesterday, a group of UN chemical weapons inspectors were set to return to Syria to continue their investigation of several alleged attacks, including a March 19 incident at Khan Al Assal, near Aleppo, according to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s office.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse