BEIRUT – Powerful Syrian Islamic rebel brigades announced Friday their merger into a single organization, a step meant to hold off surging government forces and stop rival groups from seizing more opposition-held territory.
The “Islamic Front” unites rebel groups who want to transform Syria into an Islamic state after they overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad, the groups said in a joint statement posted on the Tawhid Brigade’s Facebook page.
The merger of the Islamic groups is meant to stave off challenges from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a powerful rebel brigade composed mostly of foreign Sunni fighters, said a spokesman and another activist close to the new group.
Another powerful al-Qaida linked group, the Nusra Front, did not join the unified brigades. The spokesman said the Nusra Front wanted groups to join under its banner.
The spokesman said unifying the groups and their supply lines would take months because of communication problems challenging all of Syria’s rebel forces.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, called the merger “an extremely significant development.”
“The most militarily powerful Islamist rebel groups have effectively united their forces,” Lister wrote in an analysis.
Lister estimated the merged group has a fighting force of at least 45,000 fighters.
The spokesman also said the Islamic Front wouldn’t have relations with the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. That coalition has seen its influence erode as rebels move away from the Turkish-based group.