BEIRUT -- A U.S.-supported push to form military councils across Syria to unite the hundreds of groups fighting to topple President Bashar Assad and coordinate the provision of aid to secular rebel groups appears largely to have failed.
Rebels said U.S. officials pressed for the creation of the councils in each of Syria’s 14 provinces in response to rebel demands for arms and other support. In December, representatives of various rebel groups met in Turkey and elected a 30-member Supreme Military Council, which then selected defected Syrian Gen. Salim Idriss as its head.
But Syrian activists say the councils have become the subject of derision and mockery inside Syria in the weeks since and that other groups, including the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have assumed the central coordinating position that U.S. officials had hoped the military councils would have.
“I do not hear much about the military councils,” said Jeff White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I also do not see yet any indication the Supreme Military Council or regional commands are doing anything yet.”
Members of the military councils have blamed the United States and other nations for failing to provide support, saying that without aid, the councils were unable to gain influence over the fighting inside Syria.
“They had this plan, but no one received any support,” said Mahmoud, a Syrian-American who has set up a small rebel training camp in northern Syria and says he receives support from individual donors. He asked that his full identity not be revealed because of security concerns.
U.S. officials in Washington on Monday continued to voice support for the anti-Assad opposition.
"I think we’ve seen the opposition in Syria make continued progress,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “I think we’ve seen Assad’s grip on power in Syria continue to lessen. We continue to take steps with our partners to provide both humanitarian aid and non-lethal assistance to the opposition and to work with our partners to help bring about a post-Assad Syria that reflects the will of the Syrian people, because the right outcome here is for the Syrians to decide their own future."
The failure of the military councils to quickly organize and win influence has undercut what U.S. officials had hoped would be a system that would allow the United States and its allies to direct aid toward rebel groups that favor a democratic post-Assad Syria, where the rights of religious and ethnic minorities would be respected, and away from groups such as Nusra that favor a government based on Islamic law.
But Islamist groups remain at the forefront of recent fighting, while the military councils are barely functioning. That’s true throughout the country, including the south, where more than 20,000 people fled fighting into Jordan last week alone.
Syria’s presumed government in exile, the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, similarly has failed to take hold – another huge reversal for American policy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been the primary proponent of the coalition, which was cobbled together after Clinton publicly announced that the United States could no longer support a predecessor group, the Syrian National Council.
But after dozens of countries recognized the new group as the successor to Assad’s regime, it, too, has failed to win influence. It missed its own deadline last week to name an interim prime minister, and U.S. engagement with the organization, which reached its height prior to the U.S. presidential election in November, dropped off after the group’s leader, Sheik Mouaz Khatib, criticized the U.S. designation of the Nusra Front as an international terrorist group that is indistinguishable from al Qaida in Iraq.
Syrian activists say that the U.S. plan to diminish the role of Islamist groups in the anti-Assad fighting instead has resulted in the Islamists gaining more power.
“The Islamist battalions are the only battalions that work on the ground,” said Omar Shakir, an anti-government activist from Homs, the country’s third largest city.
He said U.S. efforts to support the military council in Homs dried up after commanders there refused to cut links to Islamist groups, as the United States demanded.
“The Islamist battalions have their own sources for money and weapons, they are really fighting well against the regime,” Shakir said. “So after the U.S. cut the support, the military council became powerless and most fighters are joining Islamist battalions.”
Those battalions, which include Nusra and another Islamist brigade, Ahrar al Sham, have been at the forefront of the fighting across Syria. More moderate Islamist groups, such as the Farouq Brigades and Liwa Tawhid, both of which are believed to be allied with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, also operate across the country.
Nusra is believed to have as many as 5,000 men under arms, and Sham is thought possibly to be larger, making the Islamist-led groups the largest fighting organizations of the multi-faceted Syrian opposition.
The United Nations has said that more than 60,000 people have died in violence since the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011.