Islamists come out on top in new effort to unify Syrian rebel groups

In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter takes a break in Kobani, Syria.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter takes a break in Kobani, Syria. AP

Seventy-two Syrian rebel groups on Saturday announced a new coalition to battle the government of President Bashar Assad. But hopes that moderate rebels would dominate the meeting were dashed when extremists gained more of the 17 executive positions than had been expected.

Col. Muhammad Hallak, who represented a moderate faction attending the three-day organizational meeting, accused Islamists, especially Ahrar al Sham, which is known to work closely with al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, of capturing more positions than its influence in the rebellion deserved.

A review of the names by McClatchy indicated that moderates hold only six or seven of the 17 executive positions.

Hallak also expressed skepticism toward the October document on which the new group, the Revolutionary Command Council, is based, saying it was written to ensure an Islamist government after Assad is toppled.

The announcement of the new umbrella group comes at a time when moderate rebels have lost territory to the Nusra Front, especially in Idlib province, where groups associated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army coalition used to hold sway.

“The covenant itself doesn’t mention the idea of free elections and most of the groups represented in the executive office don’t believe in the original democratic values of the revolution,” Hallak said.

On Friday, as the groups were meeting here, the Nusra Front stormed the bases of two moderate rebel groups in Syria’s north: the Ansar Brigades in Idlib and the Haqq Front in Hama. The two groups, both of which were receiving U.S. support through a covert CIA program, surrendered to Nusra, delivered their weapons to Ahrar al Sham and returned to their homes. Some of the leaders escaped to Turkey, fearing arrest or revenge from Nusra.

With these attacks, Nusra completed the elimination of FSA groups from Idlib and leaves just one group in Hama province receiving U.S. support. Nusra now controls all the resupply routes to Turkey.

On Saturday, the newly elected head of the Revolutionary Command Council, retired judge Kais al Shaiek, said that the council would not replace the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the rebel organization that the Obama administration once recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people. But he pointedly noted that his council would represent the interests of people inside Syria, a reference to accusations that the opposition coalition has little support among rebel groups doing the actual fighting.

Shaiek said, however, that the new council had held its meeting in Turkey because it feared attacks from the government.

It was uncertain who initiated the effort to unify the 72 groups. One goal had been to development a 7,000-man rapid deployment force that could respond to attacks from the government. But few of the groups have the supplies needed to maintain the 100 men each was required to dedicate to the force as a condition of membership.

Sheikh Hasan al Dughem, the head of the unification initiative group, said that condition would not be eased. “Any group that fails to provide 100 fighters will lose its membership in the council,” he said.

Two months ago, there was great public support for Dughem’s initiative. But the Nusra offensive and the Islamist groups’ overwhelming role in the new council underscore that the rebellion in the north is now dominated by those who are formally linked to al Qaida and others who are only sympathetic.