SNC admits alienating Syrian Islamist rebels

SNC admits alienating Syrian Islamist rebels

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
SNC admits alienating Syrian Islamist rebels

A Free Syrian Army fighter prays in Qasimiya, Damascus countryside. Thousands of rebels have broken with the Western-backed coalition. REUTERS Photo

The biggest Western-backed Syrian opposition group has admitted to alienating Islamist rebel groups by eschewing contact, resulting in Syrian Islamist rebel groups rejecting the more secularist opposition while calling for shariah law.

“Neither the Syrian National Coalition [SNC] nor Free Syrian Army [FSA] had contact with these [13 rebel] groups in parallel to the United States’ and international community’s veto [on such Islamist rebel groups in Syria]. This has led to their marginalization. We see that they approached the [al-Qaeda-linked] al-Nusra Front,” said Khaled Khoja, the Syrian National Coalition’s Turkey representative.

The 13 factions, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam groups, said in a video statement that they rejected the idea that opposition leadership could come from any organization outside Syria that was not working closely with those on the inside.

The rebel factions also called “on all military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that ... is based on shariah law, making it the sole source of legislation.”

Khoja told the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday that the statement of the 13 factions must be read as a message saying they could step back from cooperation with the al-Nusra Front if they were consulted by the main opposition body.

Liwa al-Tawhid, also known as the Tawhid brigades, is made of more than 20,000 fighters who have pushed Syrian government forces out of the Salahaddin area in the north of the country.

“The Tawhid brigades have been fighting on three fronts, against the Syrian regime, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [an al-Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS] and the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK-affiliated groups for two years despite the lack of any external financial or arms support,” said Khoja, referring to the significance of the latest statement from the group.

“My opinion is that they say they do not recognize a government which is formed without taking their opinion. This has a secret message saying that ‘we could change our mind if you consult us.’ We should read this message as such,” Khoja told the Daily News.

“They are calling our bluff because they feel that they have been abandoned without any international operation or support. The coalition, the FSA, and the international community must read this as an all-out gamble and look for ways to embrace these groups,” said Khoja.

The SNC will choose to read the statement’s positive messages and will attempt to win over the groups by making direct contact with them on the ground. This issue will top the agenda of the SNC’s General Assembly expected on Oct. 18 in Istanbul. The opposition’s new head of government, Ahmad Tumeh, the head of the coalition and a delegation from the coalition will go to the ground to contact the Islamist groups and attempt to bring them toward the mainstream.

“We indeed did not consult these groups when we established a government which will be active in the north of the country [which is largely controlled by these groups]. Ahmad Tumeh must exchange opinions with these groups on the ground. Instead of excluding these groups just because they are Islamist, we must include them in the decision-making process, making them more moderate,” Khoja added.

The online video read by a leader of the Islamist Tawheed Brigade reveals the lack of unity between the political opposition, based in exile, and the disparate rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

“These forces feel that all groups formed abroad without having returned to the country do not represent them, and they will not recognize them,” said the statement. “Therefore the National Coalition and its transitional government led by Ahmad Tumeh do not represent it and will not be recognized. These forces call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on shariah law, which should be the sole source of legislation.”