BEIRUT – Syria’s increasingly powerful Islamist rebel factions rejected the country’s new Western-backed opposition coalition and unilaterally declared an Islamic state in the key battleground of Aleppo, a sign of the seemingly intractable splits among those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
The move highlights the struggle over the direction of the rebellion at a time when the opposition is trying to gain the West’s trust and secure a flow of weapons to fight the regime. The rising profile of the extremist faction among the rebels could doom those efforts.
Such divisions have hobbled the opposition over the course of the uprising, which has descended into a bloody civil war. The fighting has been particularly extreme in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a major front in the civil war since the summer.
Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said Monday the Islamists’ declaration will unsettle both Western backers of the Syrian opposition and groups inside Syria, ranging from secularists to the Christian minority.
“They have to feel that the future of their country could be slipping away,” Shaikh said. “This is a sign of things to come the longer this goes on. The Islamist groups and extremists will increasingly be forging alliances and taking matters into their own hands.” The West is particularly concerned about sending weapons to rebels for fear they could end up in extremists’ hands.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that since the new opposition group has endorsed pluralism and tolerance, “it’s not surprising to us that those who want an extremist state, or a heavily Islamist state in Syria, have taken issue with this.”
The Islamists’ announcement, made in an online video released Sunday, shows the competing influences within the rebellion, between religious hard-liners who want to create an Islamic state in Syria – including foreign al-Qaida-style jihadi fighters – and the newly formed Syrian National Coalition, which was created earlier this month in hopes of uniting the disparate groups fighting Assad’s regime.
The National Coalition was formed under pressure from the United States, which sought a more reliable partner that nations could support. Key to its credibility is whether it can ensure the support of the multiple, highly independent rebel brigades battling on the ground across the country within Syria, which largely ignored the previous opposition political leadership, made up of exiles.
In the new video, 13 Islamic radical factions denounced the coalition as a foreign creation.
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers gave the new opposition bloc a vote of confidence but stopped short of offering official diplomatic recognition because that can only be decided by each member country individually. Still, the endorsement of the coalition as a legitimate voice for Syria’s people represents a major step forward in Western acceptance for the group.