UNITED NATIONS – Some of Syria’s most effective rebel forces, including at least three that previously were aligned with the U.S.-backed rebel command, have formed a new alliance with an al-Qaida affiliate, a development that undermines Obama administration efforts to build up Syria’s moderate opposition and to plan negotiations for an end to the civil war.
About a dozen fighting groups announced the new confederation late Tuesday in a move that caught U.S. officials by surprise. The groups include Jabhat al Nusra, which the Obama administration has designated a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida, as well as Liwa al Tawheed, Liwa al Islam and Suqor al Sham, which were considered part of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command.
The defection to the new alliance of those groups was a particularly heavy blow to the Supreme Military Command and its Free Syrian Army because they were its biggest fighting groups, analysts said.
“These are the heavy lifters in the FSA and now they’re sitting down signing agreements with Nusra,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.
In announcing their new confederation, the groups called for the imposition of Islamic law after the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad and specifically rejected the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the civilian group headquartered in Turkey that the Obama administration has promoted as an alternative to Assad.
Referring to themselves as the Islamist Coalition, the group’s “Communique Number 1” said that the U.S.-backed opposition coalition “does not represent us nor do we recognize it.”
The group called “on all military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that is based on Shariah (Islamic) law, making it the sole source of legislation.”
The emergence of the Islamist bloc comes just as U.S. officials were touting more unity and diversity within the Istanbul-based Syrian Opposition Coalition, whose leaders are at the United Nations this week trying to persuade world powers to send more money and weapons to the rebel cause. That could become a much harder sale now that the Supreme Military Command has lost its biggest militias.
The development also doesn’t bode well for the State Department’s plans for a joint U.S.-Russian peace summit on Syria, or at least a conference that would be viewed as credible by Syrians and regional stakeholders.
“Here you have radicals doing something that conceivably could give them more of a claim to a seat at the table, while because of their odious ideology and other reasons, these aren’t the people the United States wants to see at the table,” said Paul Pillar, who served as the U.S. intelligence community’s top Middle East analyst and now teaches security studies at Georgetown University.
The groups signing into the new alliance operate mostly in northern Syria, which has been wracked in recent weeks by tensions and gunfights between groups loyal to the Supreme Military Command and Syria’s other al-Qaida branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, known by the acronym ISIS. ISIS was not included in the new alliance.
Thirteen rebel factions were signatories to the Islamist alliance’s announcement.