Friday, May 25, 2018

Syrian rebel commanders join forces

BEIRUT — Rebel commanders from across Syria have joined forces under a united command they hope will increase coordination between diverse fighting groups and streamline the pathway for arms essential to their struggle against President Bashar Assad.

While many of the brigades involved in the fighting are decidedly Islamist in outlook and some have boasted about executing captured soldiers, two of the most extreme groups fighting in Syria were not invited to the rebel meeting in Turkey or included in the new council — a move that could encourage Western support.

Disorganization has bedeviled Syria's rebel movement since its birth late last year, when some protesters gave up on peaceful means to bring down Assad's regime and took up arms, forming the base of what became the Free Syrian Army.

But the movement has never actually been an army. Scores of rebel groups battle Assad's forces across the country, many coordinating with no one outside of their own area. While some say they want a civil, democratic government, others advocate an Islamic state.

The new body, expected to be announced officially today, hopes to form the basis of a united rebel front.

Some 500 delegates elected the 30-person Supreme Military Council and a Chief of Staff on Friday, and they planned to meet soon with representatives from the opposition's newly reorganized political leadership, participants said.

The move toward greater unity on the armed front comes as the United States and others try to strengthen the opposition's leadership while sidelining extremist factions that have become a vital part of the rebels' ground forces.

The opposition's political leadership reorganized last month, under Western pressure, into a new National Alliance that its backers hope will have broader representation and stronger links to rebel fighters.

Britain, France, Turkey and several Gulf Arab nations have recognized the National Alliance, effectively considering it a government in exile.

The United States is expected to recognize it at an international "Friends of Syria" conference in Marakech, Morocco, that begins Wednesday.

It remains unclear how the new military command will relate to the National Alliance and whether foreign powers will back it.

But two of Syria's most extreme rebel groups were not included: Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed deadly suicide bombings and is believed to be linked to al-Qaida, and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamic fundamentalist brigade home to many foreign jihadis.

U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.

Elizabeth O'Bagy, who studies Syria's rebels for the Institute for the Study of War, said the new command included important on-the-ground commanders, which will give it more support from various rebel factions. The inclusion of less extreme Islamist brigades will also give the body credibility.

"They are going to have a role in a future Syria and sidelining them will only fuel tensions," she said. Including them "shows that this command is representative of those on the ground, not just the ideal candidates for the West."

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