On Tuesday, 13 major rebel groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda-linked groups but also a number of significant ostensibly “moderate” Islamist factions, signed a statement rejecting the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the rebel umbrella group with which the U.S. and Gulf allies have been cooperating, and declaring their desire to establish a separate authority exclusively based on sharia law.
These groups don’t represent all of the important rebel fighting groups in Syria, but they are almost definitely a majority of them and now represent the single most powerful rebel alliance in Syria. (We don’t know just how meaningful the pledge of allegiance/rejection is, and it could be dropped if Gulf states threaten the source of rebel groups’ funding — this post at Syria Comment has more on the caveats).
But this is more evidence that most of the effective fighting forces in Syria are Islamist first and foremost, and that the moderate forces the West has hoped to encourage and empower established almost no authority over them.
The United States recognized the SNC in late 2012 as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, and in recent months the Obama administration has been trying to coax it to a second round of talks in Geneva with the U.S., Russia, and Assad’s regime. Just last week in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry and the British and French foreign ministers praised the work of the SNC and argued it was the key group to support in working toward a new Syria, and the SNC’s leaders are in New York this week to meet with international representatives. But as enticing as it’s been to the West (it has picked a few secular leaders, etc.), its legitimacy and influence on the ground has long been suspect, and this event is just more evidence that it lacks real control over the most important fighting groups in Syria.
It’s important to note that, when proponents of intervention in Syria claim extremist groups are marginal and say they represent at most, say, 30 or 35 percent of the rebels, that’s referring to al-Qaeda-linked and global-jihadist groups, which already had a testy relationship with the SNC (more skeptical observers contend it could be more like half and half).
The groups that just rejected the SNC do include those groups, but they also include much of the good half, or two-thirds, or whatever. They’ve always been Islamist, and we knew it, but the best hope was that their notional political loyalty to the SNC meant some acknowledgement of and some respect for the SNC’s democratic, secular goals, despite almost very group’s explicit belief that sharia should be the source of legislation, etc. But now they’ve rejected the group the West considered legitimate on the grounds that . . . essentially, according to their statement, the West considered it legitimate, and they want more pure adherence to sharia.
A less paranoid reading of this break would be that it’s in part driven by a rejection of the SNC on the grounds that it’s expat- and exile-based and feels irrelevant to the conflict; a story in the Times on Sunday highlighted these tensions, but that would really just be a proxy for the fact that the rebels the U.S. manages to get along with aren’t trusted by real Syrians, and don’t know what’s desired on the ground.
A Syria analyst for Jane’s describes the rebellious signatories as including ”most core [Syrian National Council/Syrian Military Council] units,” and says, “The entire nature of the [Syrian] opposition may well have undergone a massive shift tonight, with very significant implications for” the Syrian National Council.
Why this break right now? The most powerful rebel group that’s absent from the list is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS — al-Sham is an name for the idea of a greater Islamic Syria, basically), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that has been making large gains and committing plenty of attention-getting atrocities of late. One interpretation of the new alliance, if it turns out to be meaningful at all, then, is supposed to be a counterweight to ISIS, which has been beating up on other, less extreme and violent Islamist groups. The best evidence for this theory, as Aron Lund lays out, is that a largely non-ideological group of rebel smugglers, the Northern Storm Brigade flocked to this new Islamist coalition and strongly endorsed the centrality of sharia this evening — and they’ve been suffering heavy losses at the hands of ISIS recently. Lund notes this is evidence that the shifting alliances in Syria and the power dynamics are about “size, money and momentum,” with ideology a distant fourth.
But tonight’s announcement suggests that the momentum is all on the side of one ideology — pure Islamism. And, it’s important to note, while vigorous U.S. support for certain factions could maybe have shifted this slightly, these groups’ power isn’t autocthonous — they’ve become the dominant fighting forces thanks to cash, training, and weapons from the Gulf states, and probably Turkey and Saudi Arabia.