The threadbare fiction of a democratically-oriented "exile leadership" of rebel groups in Syria was further exposed Tuesday when it was reported that some of the opposition's most effective groups have openly abandoned the not so "Supreme Military Council." -- The New York Times reported that "The fractured nature of the opposition, the rising radical Islamist character of some rebel fighters, and the increasing complexity of Syria’s battle lines have left the exile leadership with diminished clout inside the country and have raised the question of whether it could hold up its end of any agreement reached to end the war." -- BACKGROUND: According to IHS Jane's, of the about 100,000 fighters now in Syria fighting Bashar al-Assad and his regime, about 10,000 are jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, 30,000-35,000 are hardline Islamists with a less internationalist perspective than the Qaeda-linked groups, and 30,000 are "moderates" belonging to Islamic groups, the London *Sunday Telegraph* reported. -- "[O]nly a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups," Ben Farmer said. -- The fighters "are fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands." -- What's more, two of the most radical jihadist groups, "[a]s well as being better armed and tougher fighters, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra[,] have taken control of much of the income-generating resources in the north of the country, including oil, gas, and grain. -- This has given them significant economic clout, allowing them to 'win hearts and minds' [sic] by providing food for the local population in a way that other rebel groups cannot." ...
Crisis in Syria
KEY SYRIAN REBEL GROUPS ABANDON EXILE LEADERS
By Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon
New York Times
September 25, 2013
BEIRUT -- As diplomats at the United Nations push for a peace conference to end Syria’s civil war, a collection of some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The fractured nature of the opposition, the rising radical Islamist character of some rebel fighters, and the increasing complexity of Syria’s battle lines have left the exile leadership with diminished clout inside the country and have raised the question of whether it could hold up its end of any agreement reached to end the war.
The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when eleven rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.”
Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council.
Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade, said the group intended to send a message of disapproval to an exile leadership it believes has accomplished little.
“We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,” he said.
The statement was issued just as Western nations are striving to raise the profile of the “moderate” Syrian political opposition, which is led by Ahmad al-Jarba. The United States and its allies have been reluctant to fully align with and arm the rebels because their ranks are heavily populated by Islamists.
France has scheduled an event on Thursday on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly at which Mr. Jarba is to speak along with foreign ministers who have backed him, including Secretary of State John Kerry.
There was no immediate comment from Mr. Jarba, whose coalition is formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Mr. Jarba canceled a news conference that had also been scheduled for Thursday.
A senior State Department official who accompanied Mr. Kerry to the United Nations meetings this week said the United States was still trying to strengthen Mr. Jarba’s coalition and suggested that some of the factions that had broken with him included extremists.
“We, of course, have seen the reports of an announcement by some Islamist opposition groups of their formation of a new political alliance,” the State Department official said.
“As we’ve already said clearly before, we’ve been long working toward unity among the opposition,” the official added. “But we also have had extreme concerns about extremists.”
Another American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said the coalition had recently made “real progress” in broadening its base by including an array of Kurdish parties as well as members of local councils in “liberated” areas of northern and eastern Syria.
But the official acknowledged that the coalition had more to do to build up its credibility inside the country, since its headquarters are in Turkey and not Syria.
The latest split in the opposition emerged as the United States, Russia, and other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council were making progress on another front: drafting a Council resolution that would enforce an agreement on eliminating Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal.
A Western diplomat said Wednesday that about 80 percent of the resolution had been agreed to and that he was “cautiously optimistic” that it would be settled this week.
The rifts between the exile opposition and those fighting Mr. Assad’s forces inside Syria have raised questions about whether the opposition’s political leadership has sufficient influence in the country to hold up its end if an agreement is ever reached to end the civil war.
“At this stage, the political opposition does not have the credibility with or the leverage over the armed groups on the ground to enforce an agreement that the armed groups reject,” said Noah Bonsey, who studies the Syrian opposition for the International Crisis Group.
“You need two parties for an agreement, and there is no viable political alternative to the coalition,” he said, defining a disconnect between the diplomatic efforts taking shape in New York and the reality across Syria.
Inside Syria, rebel groups that originally formed to respond to crackdowns by Mr. Assad’s forces on political protests have gradually merged into larger groupings, some commanded and staffed by Islamists. But differences in ideology and competition for scarce foreign support have made it hard for them to unite under an effective, single command.
Seeking to build a moderate front against Mr. Assad, Western nations encouraged the formation of the opposition political coalition. Even though some of its leading members, like Mr. Jarba, have been imprisoned by the Assad government, the coalition has loose links to many of the rebel fighters on the ground.
The rebel groups that assailed the political opposition are themselves diverse and include a number that are linked to the coalition’s Supreme Military Council. More troubling to the West, they also include the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda. At the same time they include groups that remain opposed to another group linked to Al Qaeda: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“The brigades that signed have political differences with Nusra, but we agree with them militarily since they want to topple the regime,” said a rebel who gave his name as Abu Bashir.
A coalition member and aide to Mr. Jarba said the opposition was still studying the development but was surprised by some of the groups that had signed on with the Nusra Front.
“The Islamic project is clear and it is not our project,” said the coalition member, Monzer Akbik. “We don’t have a religious project; we have a civil democratic project, and that needs to be clear.”
Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.
In recent months, it has supplanted the Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadis streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.
Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe, and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.
But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.
--Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Michael R. Gordon from the United Nations. Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Istanbul.
SYRIA: NEARLY HALF REBEL FIGHTERS ARE JIHADISTS OR HARDKINE ISLAMISTS, SAYS IHS JANE'S REPORT
By Ben Farmer
** Nearly half the rebel fighters in Syria are now aligned to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups according to a new analysis of factions in the country's civil war. **
Sunday Telegraph (London)
September 15, 2013
Opposition forces battling Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria now number around 100,000 fighters, but after more than two years of fighting they are fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands.
The new study by IHS Jane's, a defence consultancy, estimates there are around 10,000 jihadists - who would include foreign fighters - fighting for powerful factions linked to al-Qaeda..
Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle.
There are also at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character, meaning only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.
The stark assessment, to be published later this week, accords with the view of Western diplomats estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are "palatable" to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
Fears that the rebellion against the Assad regime is being increasingly dominated by extremists has fuelled concerns in the West over supplying weaponry that will fall into hostile hands. These fears contributed to unease in the U.S. and elsewhere over military intervention in Syria.
Charles Lister, author of the analysis, said: "The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out."
The study is based on intelligence estimates and interviews with activists and militants. The lengthy fighting has seen the emergence of hundreds of separate rebel bands, each operating in small pockets of the country, which are usually loyal to larger factions.
Two factions linked to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) -- also know as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) -- have come to dominate among the more extremist fighters, Mr. Lister said. Their influence has risen significantly in the past year.
"Because of the Islamist make up of such a large proportion of the opposition, the fear is that if the West doesn't play its cards right, it will end up pushing these people away from the people we are backing," he said. "If the West looks as though it is not interested in removing Assad, moderate Islamists are also likely to be pushed further towards extremists."
Though still a minority in number, ISIL has become more prominent in rebel-held parts of Syria in recent months. Members in northern Syria have sought to assert their dominance over the local population and over the more moderate rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The aim of moderate rebel fighters is the overthrow of their country's authoritarian dictator, but jihadist groups want to transform Syria into a hard-line Islamic state within a regional Islamic "caliphate."
These competing visions have caused rancor which last week erupted into fighting between ISIL and two of the larger moderate rebel factions.
A statement posted online by Islamists announced the launch of an ISIL military offensive in the eastern district of Aleppo which it called "Cleansing Evil." "We will target regime collaborators, shabiha [pro-Assad militias], and those who blatantly attacked the Islamic state," it added, naming the Farouq and Nasr factions.
Al-Qaeda has assassinated several FSA rebel commanders in northern Latakia province in recent weeks, and locals say they fear this is part of a jihadist campaign to gain complete control of the territory.
As well as being better armed and tougher fighters, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra have taken control of much of the income-generating resources in the north of the country, including oil, gas, and grain.
This has given them significant economic clout, allowing them to "win hearts and minds" by providing food for the local population in a way that other rebel groups cannot.
ISIS has also begun a program of "indoctrination" of civilians in rebel-held areas, trying to educate Syria's traditionally moderate Sunni Muslims into a more hard-line interpretation of Islam.
In early September, the group distributed black backpacks with the words "Islamic State of Iraq" stamped on them. They also now control schools in Aleppo where young boys are reportedly taught to sing jihadist anthems.
"It seems it is some sort of a long-term plan to brainwash the children and recruit potential fighters," said Elie Wehbe, a Lebanese journalists who is conducting research into these activities.