UNITED NATIONS -- Some of Syrias 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 Syrias 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 theyre 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 groups 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 convince 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 doesnt bode well for the State Departments 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 arent the people the United States wants to see at the table, said Paul Pillar, who served as the U.S. intelligence communitys top Middle East analyst and now teaches security studies at Georgetown University.
The Islamist coalition is not likely to affect negotiations over a Security Council resolution that would require the Assad government to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles. The Reuters news agency quoted Russias deputy foreign minister as saying an agreement is expected in the next two days. How to enforce any resolution has been an issue and may have played into the rebels decision to announce a new coalition, out of frustration that American interests in Syria appear to have become focused on the issue of chemical weapons and not the violence of the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless.