BEIRUT – Rebel commanders from across Syria have joined forces under a united command they hope will increase coordination between diverse fighting groups and streamline the pathway for arms essential to their struggle against President Bashar Assad.
While many of the brigades involved in the fighting are decidedly Islamist in outlook and some have boasted about executing captured soldiers, two of the most extreme groups fighting in Syria were not invited to the rebel meeting in Turkey or included in the new council – a move that could encourage Western support.
The new body, expected to be announced officially today, hopes to form the basis of a united rebel front.
Some 500 delegates elected the 30-person Supreme Military Council and a Chief of Staff on Friday and planned to meet soon with representatives from the opposition’s newly reorganized political leadership, participants said.
“The aim of this meeting was to unify the armed opposition to bring down the regime,” said a rebel commander from near Damascus who attended the meeting. “It also aims to get the situation under control once the regime falls.”
The move toward greater unity on the armed front comes as the U.S. and others try to strengthen the opposition’s leadership while sidelining extremist factions that have become a vital part of the rebels’ ground forces.
The opposition’s political leadership reorganized last month, under Western pressure, into a new National Alliance that its backers hope will have broader representation and stronger links to rebel fighters.
Britain, France, Turkey and several Gulf Arab nations have recognized the National Alliance, effectively considering it a government in exile.
Many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers.
Assad’s regime appears increasingly embattled, with rebels making gains in northern Syria and near Damascus while the U.S., Turkey and others seek to hasten its demise. U.S. officials have expressed fears that Assad could use chemical or biological weapons, and U.S. intelligence has reported new activities at sites housing Syria’s chemical weapons.