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WASHINGTON, September 25 (RIA Novosti) – Thousands of armed Syrian rebels have split from the main Western-backed opposition group to create a new coalition guided by Islamic sharia law, a move analysts say could undercut a US drive to empower moderates in the war-torn country.
Thirteen rebel factions led by the al-Qaida-linked militant group Nusra Front – which Washington considers a terrorist organization – said in a joint statement posted online late Tuesday that their interests are not represented by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a Western-backed Syrian opposition group based in Turkey.
“These forces feel that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country do not represent them, so the forces will not recognize them,” said the statement, which was read online by a political leader of the Tawheed Brigade rebel faction.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has been providing military and humanitarian aid to opposition groups seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Washington accuses of deploying chemical weapons in the two-year-old conflict.
The White House has repeatedly said that it is vetting the rebel groups it works with to ensure the United States is not arming terrorists, though it concedes that extremist Islamic elements have joined the opposition in fighting Assad’s forces.
Both Assad and his staunch ally, Russia, have argued that the Syrian opposition is teeming with Islamic extremists who could spread terrorism beyond Syria’s borders should the rebels topple Assad.
It was not immediately clear what the newly created Islamist rebel faction would look like, but the announced coalition made it clear in its statement that it does not recognize what it called the “supposed government” led by Ahmad Tumeh, a dentist elected earlier this month as the SNC’s provisional prime minister.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Wednesday that American officials had “seen the reports” and were “discussing with the moderate opposition what impact this will have going forward,” The Washington Post reported.
“A divided opposition benefits the Assad regime and opportunists who are using the conflict to further their own extreme agenda,” Psaki said in the statement to the Post, adding that Washington would continue “taking into account that alliances and associations often change on the ground based on resources and needs of the moment.”
Aron Lund, an expert on Syrian rebel factions, said that if the Islamist coalition does not succumb to infighting and collapse, its announced break from the Western-backed opposition is “a big deal” and blow to US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“It represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream FSA’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces,” Lund wrote Tuesday on the Syria Comment blog.
The 13 groups altogether “control at least” tens of thousands of fighters, Lund wrote.
A senior US State Department official told reporters Tuesday that the so-called “moderate” opposition backed by Washington is essentially fighting two fronts in Syria right now: one against Assad’s forces and another against Islamic extremists.
“I would even go so far as to say that the extremists are actually doing the [Assad] government’s work now,” the official said, following a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition during the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert at HIS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, described the 13 groups who signed the statement as “Syria’s most sizable and powerful insurgent organizations,” The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
Three of the groups that signed on are represented in the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, and their decampment “effectively depletes” the council, Lister told the Journal.
Gen. Salim Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council, plans to travel to Syria on Thursday to try to convince the groups to reconsider the move, a spokesman for the council told the Post.
The announcement comes amid an impasse between Moscow and Washington over the implementation of a US-Russian plan to secure Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile for eventual destruction.
Washington is pushing for a UN Security Council resolution that would allow for military action against Syria should Assad fail to abide by the plan, while Moscow has repeatedly rejected the use of outside force in the civil war.
The Obama administration accuses Assad’s government of carrying out an Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus that Washington claims left more than 1,400 dead, while Russia says it has evidence that Syrian rebels likely launched the attack in order to frame Assad.
The announcement by the 13 rebel groups also comes as the United States and Russia attempt to arrange peace negotiations between the Assad government and the rebels in Geneva.
“The brigades on the ground are sending a major shot across the bows of the coalition before talks in Geneva,” Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is Syrian and opposes the Assad regime, told the Post. “They are essentially reminding them that they will need to include them.”
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