Division grows in U.S.-backed anti-Assad coalition as key group is expelled

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 20, 2014 

Mideast Syria

Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army Gen. Salim Idris addresses the media, March 6, 2013

GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT — AP

— The Syrian opposition, already divided deeply over a shakeup of its top military staff, formally has split with one of its most important political components, the Syrian National Council, adding to a growing leadership crisis in the group that has been the Obama administration’s primary Syrian ally.

The breakdown among the so-called moderate opposition comes as the Syrian government presses an aggressive bombing campaign over rebel-held areas of Aleppo and an al Qaida-inspired group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, continues to challenge other rebels for primacy in northern Syria.

On Thursday, suspected ISIS members detonated a suicide bomb at a tent camp at the Bab al Salama border crossing with Turkey, killing 24 people, according to Turkish news reports. The car bombing came just days after ISIS captured a village less than a mile from the crossing and fired rockets near the camp. Reuters quoted the camp administrator as blaming Thursday’s attack on ISIS.

Turkey closed the crossing, except for the transport of the wounded to Turkish hospitals, effectively sealing the border for shipments of food and other supplies for the enormous number of homeless Syrians, as well as weapons and supplies for rebel forces. Turkey closed the even bigger crossing at Reyhanli last weekend after Islamist fighters mounted an operation to remove armed groups there who’d been seizing aid from convoys entering Syria.

The two-front war – against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS – looks to be all the greater challenge for the Syrian opposition after deep splits that appeared this week over who’s in charge of the fighting forces and who’ll play a role in the Istanbul-based civilian leadership.

The latest split occurred Wednesday, when the Syrian Opposition Coalition formally severed ties with the Syrian National Council, whose members make up one-fifth of the coalition’s 112-member ruling body. Members of the coalition’s political committee sent the notice to the Syrian National Council members via email.

“We didn’t order them out,” Fayez Sara, a member of the committee, told McClatchy. “We just declared they are no longer a part of the coalition.”

The Syrian National Council was the original foreign-based Syrian political opposition group, and it has many members who belong to the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Critics allege that Brotherhood members harbor an Islamist agenda, and both the United States and Saudi Arabia took exception to the Syrian National Council playing a leading role in the resistance, leading to creation of the coalition more than a year ago.

Last month, the Syrian National Council announced that it was withdrawing from the coalition to protest its participation in the Geneva peace talks co-sponsored by the U.S. and Russia. But it continued to participate in the coalition deliberations. Khalid Saleh, a Syrian National Council executive board member who’s been one of the coalition’s most articulate spokesmen, said, “The mood in the SNC was to return to the coalition” – that is, until it received the notice.

“People are really upset. We said to Jarba, you are in the midst of a battle for survival,” he said, referring to Ahmed Jarba, the president of the coalition. “We’ll see how this plays out.”

Jarba is already engaged in a major political battle with ground commanders after he helped force the ouster of Gen. Salim Idriss, who had been the chief of staff of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, and his replacement with Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, a little-known rebel commander in southwestern Syria. On Wednesday, Idriss and a group of ground commanders announced they would not take orders from the “temporary government” headed by Jarba.

There were news reports that Turkey, which hosts the opposition, had informed the mutinous commanders that they would no longer be welcome here. Turkish Foreign Ministry officials could not confirm the reports. They said the government respects the decisions by the Syrian civilian leadership and would not interfere in their internal dealings.

Jarba and others in the dispute could not be reached Thursday, and a spokesman for the opposition’s defense ministry said there will be no public statements until the matter is resolved.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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