BEIRUT (AP) — A group of extremist Islamist factions in Syria has rejected the country’s new opposition coalition, saying in a video statement they have formed an “Islamic state” in the embattled city of Aleppo to underline that they want nothing to do with the Western-backed bloc.
The video appears to be a reaction to the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, formed Nov. 11 in Qatar to unify groups trying to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The coalition is led by a popular Muslim cleric and is seen as a way to counter the growing influence of Islamic extremists in the 20-month old rebellion that has claimed more than 36,000 lives.
The statement by 13 radical factions that was posted on a militant website late Sunday suggested the extremist elements — including the al-Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra — are suspicious of the new coalition. They rejected what they said was a “foreign project” and declared the northern city of Aleppo, where many radical groups have been fighting, an “Islamic state.”
“We are the representatives of the fighting formations in Aleppo and we declare our rejection of the conspiratorial project, the so-called national alliance,” the statement said. “We have unanimously agreed to urgently establish an Islamic state and to reject any foreign project.” The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed, but it was released on a website that carries al Qaeda and other militant statements.
The Syrian uprising started as peaceful protests in March 2011. It quickly morphed into a war that has deepened sectarian divisions in the country. Many of those trying to depose Assad are Sunni Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, followers of a Shiite offshoot sect.
Syria’s political opposition has struggled to prove its relevance amid the civil war under a leadership largely made up of academics and exiled politicians. With its relaunch as a new organization earlier this month, it has taken a different tack by choosing Mouaz al-Khatib as its head. The 52-year-old cleric-turned-activist is respected by groups from across the political spectrum and has preached sectarian unity.
In Cairo, al-Khatib told reporters the Council will consider the concerns of Syrian factions who have not joined the new umbrella group.
“We will listen to our brothers who have not joined this alliance,” al-Khatib said after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr. “We will keep in contact with them for more cooperation in the interest of the Syrian people,” al-Khatib said.
Many Syrians, particularly those in the capital Damascus where fighting and demonstrations have been relatively light, fear the Islamic extremists. Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for a number of devastating bombings in the capital and other cities, targeting state security institutions and military intelligence branches there.
Also on Monday, a Kurdish group has clashed with rebel units in the city of Ras al-Ayn, a Turkish official said. The rare infighting among rebel units comes just days after opposition fighters ousted Assad’s troops from the strategic city in northeastern al-Hasaka province along the border with Turkey.
At least seven Syrians were injured in the clashes and were brought across the border into the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, according to an official in the Ceylanpinar mayor’s office. The official said one of the injured men later died.
The official said the clashes erupted after a group of Kurds marched through Ras al-Ayn trying to hoist a flag of a Syrian Kurdish party.
He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to reporters without prior authorization.
An Associated Press video journalist in Ceylanpinar heard gunfire and occasional shelling coming from the oil-rich city that at is predominantly Kurdish.
Tehran started building a $10 billion natural gas pipeline to Syria as part of efforts to boost Iran’s energy sector that has been battered by international sanctions.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said the 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) pipeline will pass through Iraq before reaching Syria.
Iran began construction of the first phase of the project involving a 225-kilometer (140-mile) stretch at an estimated cost of $3 billion. The Fars report Monday said the entire project is to be completed in the second half of 2013. The deal was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria last July.
Along with Russia and China, Iran has been an ally of Damascus during the conflict.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
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