The announcement that 11 of the largest armed factions among the Syrian rebels have united under an Islamist umbrella held aloft by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, represents a potential game-changer. The unlikely alliance amounts to a warning shot across the bow of the United States, the Syrian Opposition Council which had sought to represent the fractious Syrian opposition in negotiations, and an international community that is seeking a negotiated end to a bloody Syrian civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. If the odd-couple alliance holds it will greatly complicate U.S. efforts to arm “moderate” elements of the Syrian rebellion. Already it has put territory on the border of NATO ally Turkey under the black banner of al-Qaeda.
“To the extent this is not just a trial balloon and this murky alliance holds, then it is very troubling that some of the rebel factions we considered arming are now allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate,” said David Pollack, an analyst with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. “On the other hand a number of these secular and nationalist rebel factions have been openly battling with the jihadi groups in recent weeks, and if this ultimately splits the two it will make it even more important for the United States to finally arm and back the groups we want to see win.”
The surprise announcement of an Islamist rebel alliance was aimed most directly at the United States, and its diplomatic gambit to end the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration has made no secret of its strategy for using the deal reached this week to secure Syria’s chemical weapons as the jumping off point for negotiations in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia have pushed for ending the war.
On one level, the new rebel alliance was a vote of no-confidence in the U.S.-promoted peace talks, and in the Western-backed political opposition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the rebels’ interlocutor. The SOC chairman Ahmad al-Jarba had recently announced his willingness to attend the as-yet-unscheduled Geneva talks, but the new Islamist alliance declared in its statement that the SOC “does not represent us.”
Upon hearing of the new alliance, General Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, cut short a trip to Paris to return to Syria and try and persuade the more moderate factions to reconsider the new alliance. However, Idriss and the rest of the rebel leaders have been bitterly disappointed that the Obama administration has been slow to arm “moderate” opposition factions as promised. They were further infuriated by the U.S. decision not to launch threatened military strikes at the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in August.
“A lot of the Syrian rebels are very upset that instead of striking at the Syrian regime militarily as promised, the Obama administration is now negotiating with Assad. That crushed the last hope the Syrian opposition had for Western intervention on their behalf,” said Valerie Szybala, a Syrian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “So the announcement of this new alliance was a proclamation in the strongest possible terms that we not only reject the U.S. strategy, we reject U.S. leadership that, by continually promising and not delivering, has actively undermined some of the rebel groups we claim to want to help.”
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