- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eleven Syrian rebel groups, including a powerful al Qaeda affiliate, have rejected the Western-backed opposition coalition, calling for a new Syria under Islamic law and dealing a severe blow to U.S.-led efforts to support a democratic alternative to embattled President Bashar Assad.

In a statement read out in an online video late Tuesday night, the rebel alliance called on other militants fighting to topple the Assad regime to unite under a “clear Islamic framework.”

“The prospect that the Islamists are going to be able to set up some sort of overarching political and military coordination and organizational structure should be troubling not only to the Syrian secular opposition, but also for Washington,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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The rebel alliance rejected the leadership of Ahmad Saleh Touma, who earlier this month was elected the interim prime minister of U.S.-backed National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian Coalition. But it pointedly made no mention of Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the military wing of the political opposition. Gen. Idriss also serves as a conduit for foreign assistance to the rebels.

The rebels’ declaration also shunned “all groups formed abroad,” a reference to the Turkish-based Syrian Coalition.

“From an international perspective, the argument that we want to fund a moderate opposition has just been blown full of holes,” said Valerie Szybala, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

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“The job of people like Gen. Idriss, who have been trying to gather support from Western countries, has been made impossible, if not extremely difficult.

“But you could also make the argument that he wasn’t really getting that job done anyway, so the brigades who joined made the calculation that that was a losing battle.”

The new rebel bloc includes some powerful factions of the Free Syrian Army, which is likely to undermine the case to arm and fund the moderate opposition. Obama administration officials said this month that U.S. arms had begun flowing to the Free Syrian Army.

The Obama administration was caught off guard by the announcement, and a U.S. official told The Associated Press that it is too early to determine what the impact will be. Another U.S. official said the U.S. and its allies are increasingly concerned about infighting between the Free Syrian Army and al Qaeda militants in northern and eastern Syria.

“We are discussing and have already begun discussing the impact of this announcement with our Syrian opposition counterparts,” a senior State Department official said on the condition of anonymity.

The statement was issued hours after a delegation from the coalition met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in New York, and as a team of U.N. specialists arrived in Damascus to continue investigating the suspected use of chemical weapons in the civil war.

End of the Free Syrian Army?

Miss Szybala said the formation of the Islamist rebel bloc could deal a blow to the rebels’ moderate armed wing.

“I imagine there will be other brigades in Syria who are going to jump on this train and join this alliance unless foreign funders don’t like it and push back,” she said. “You may see this be the end of the Free Syrian Army. It is going to be hard for them to bounce back from this one.”

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