U.S.-Backed Syrian Coalition Plays Down Rebels’ Call for an Islamist Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | September 26, 2013 | 4:40 AM EDT

Smoke rises from buildings after an airstrike by Syria regime forces in the central province of Hama on Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition put a brave face Wednesday on a declaration signed by some of the most powerful rebel groups inside the country, rejecting the faction as out-of-touch exiles who do not represent the rebellion.

The declaration by at least 11 Islamist factions called on all those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime to unite under a "clear Islamic framework" and commit themselves to shari’a as “the sole source of legislation.”

The statement could signal a collaborative initiative that proves as short-lived as have previous ones – or it could turn out to be of major significance to the future of the anti-Assad rebellion.

Signatories include one of two al-Qaeda affiliates in the country, the al-Nusrah Front, as well as several major rebel groups focused in the north of the country. At least three of the groups until now have been associated with the SNC’s military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose supreme military council is led by Gen. Salim Idriss.

The declaration by the Islamist groups came as the SNC’s Turkey-based leaders including its president, Ahmad al-Jarba, are visiting New York for talks with the U.S. and other governments that have thrown their support behind the SNC and Idriss.

The delegation is scheduled to hold a press conference at the U.N. on Thursday morning, but a senior member of its political office, Anas al-Abdeh, issued a statement in Arabic on Wednesday reacting to the development in Syria.

He said the declaration was inappropriate, coming as the SNC delegation was holding talks at the U.N. in a bid to “gain new friends.”

Abdeh said some large rebel factions had not signed the statement, and those that did sign “do not represent the most important free army battalions on the ground.”

He also called it a mistake for those involved in the initiative to have included al-Nusrah, saying the al-Qaeda-linked faction follows an agenda “that is hostile to the [Syrian] national project.”

Abdeh said it was essential that the SNC hold dialogue with the Islamist signatories – with the exception of al-Nusrah – to try to understand and take into account their “points of concern.”

In response to the declaration’s comments regarding shari’a, he said, “It should be known to all that the nature of the future state in Syria is the people’s choice, through the ballot box. No-one has the right to impose guardianship on the Syrian people and declare the type of regime or the law that will govern Syria.”

A senior State Department official briefing reporters in New York on background said the administration had seen the declaration and was discussing it with the visiting SNC representatives.

“We’ve been long working towards unity among the opposition, and have never felt that a divided opposition would be beneficial to anyone but the Assad regime,” the official said.

“We’re still working with the opposition and talking to them about what this means and how we can strengthen the moderate opposition and continue to help them.”

Writing on the Syria Comment blog, analyst Aron Lund said that if the Islamist declaration accurately reflects the views of the signatories and the group does not fall apart, then it amounts to “a very big deal.”

“It represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream FSA’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces.”

Lund, a Swedish Mideast affairs researcher who has published studies on the Syrian opposition, noted that among factions that did not sign the statement was the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – the second al-Qaeda group active in the anti-Assad rebellion.

He said that may be significant, given recent tensions between ISIS and other factions.

“On the other hand, the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS. It might in fact suit them pretty well, since it weakens the hand of the Western-backed camp and adds weight to Islamist demands.”

In an earlier background briefing, after Secretary of State John Kerry met with Jarba, a senior administration official mentioned that “a real firefight” was currently underway in eastern Syria between ISIS and FSA forces – “the hardest fighting we’ve ever seen” between the two.

“The people that we support under Salim Idriss are bringing in reinforcements, and it’s a slog right now.”

The administration official also acknowledged concerns about the fact SNC leaders are not based inside Syria.

“I will be the first person to say that there are credibility issues still. They are located in Istanbul and Gaziantep [in south-east Turkey, near the border with Syria]; they’re not located inside Syria.

“And so they are at a disadvantage that way, and it’s a problem.”

The official pointed out that some SNC officials including Jarba have made trips into Syria, but do not live there.

“So they’re going to have to do more to build their own credibility in the country, and we talked about that today too. But they told us they understand that.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow