U.S. Influence Fades As Islamist Rebels Unite in Syria

Syria's new rebel alliance undermines the old rebel alliance

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Manu Brabo / AP

A man shouts slogans against the Assad regime in front of a Jabhat al-Nusra flag during a demonstration in Aleppo, Syria, on Sept. 21, 2012

For those, including the Obama Administration, exasperated with the fragmented, increasingly fratricidal rebel forces pitted against Syria’s strongman Bashar Assad, any consolidation within the insurgents’ ranks would have once come as a welcome development. That time is now gone, however, and that rule no longer holds.

In yet another sign that the Syrian insurgency has come under the sway of radicals unwilling to answer to the Western-backed secular opposition, seven Islamist groups united on Friday as the Islamic Front, forming what is said to be the largest rebel alliance in Syria. “This independent political, military and social formation aims to topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler,” Ahmed Eissa, commander of the Suqur al-Sham brigades, one of the groups that joined the front, said in a statement posted online.

In e-mailed comments, Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, estimated that the new alliance, which also includes the Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Army, counts at least 45,000 fighters. By consolidating external backing from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia — the alliance members’ main outside sponsors — the front’s formation may prove a “landmark moment” for the insurgency, said Lister. It will “undoubtedly result in a renewed intensity in rebel operations across many key parts of the country.”

The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which have made major inroads in Syria in recent months. While the front isn’t likely to confront al-Qaeda intentionally, said Lister, it does represent “an explicitly Syrian Islamist body capable of co-opting Syrians away from al-Qaeda.”

However, the move still comes as a major blow to the Western-backed Syrian Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which have already been weakened by internecine strife and clashes with al-Qaeda affiliates. It is also expected to further erode the West’s appetite for assisting the rebels and undermine efforts at bringing the Syrian regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. The groups comprising the new Islamic Front have made it clear they are opposed to Geneva II, the U.N. peace conference planned for later this year. Their new alliance, tweeted Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, is a “nail in the coffin” of the Geneva talks.

At a conference in Istanbul, a pair of former U.S. National Security Advisers acknowledged that Western powers’ influence on the course of the war inside Syria, already tenuous, was waning.

“The failure to be involved [in Syria] over the last 2½ years has led to a disastrous situation,” Stephen Hadley, who served under George W. Bush, said at the Atlantic Council Energy and Economic Summit held in Istanbul on Friday. The front’s formation, he added in later remarks, “shows the effect of not having been active to arm training the more moderate democratic elements. The irony is that everybody is getting weapons, in terms of the most extreme elements and the Syrian government, except those people that are probably most attuned to our interests.”

“The opposition is increasingly fractured and extremist,” said Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, “and the moderate opposition has less and less purchase over the rebels who are fighting.”

Also on Friday, reports emerged that ISIS, an al-Qaeda franchise fighting in Syria, had seized control of Atmeh, a key crossing point for supplies and insurgents near the Turkish border. According to activists cited by Reuters, ISIS fighters wrested control of the town from Suqur al-Islam, a moderate Islamist unit whose men had been left exhausted by clashes with FSA units earlier this week.

With fundamentalists of all stripes effectively sidelining the moderate opposition in Syria, the only thing the West may now fear as much as the rebels’ total defeat, it appears, is their total victory. If Assad is allowed to win, “it sends a message to the world that if you’re willing to kill hundreds of thousands of your people, the international community will let you stay to power,” says Hadley. “And the opposition winning … increasingly that means Islamists and al-Qaeda.”

A spokesperson for the Syrian Coalition, Khalid Saleh, speaking to TIME on Sunday night, estimated that the Islamic Front controlled up to 60 percent of rebel fighters in Syria but insisted that the new alliance continued to answer to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council. “They have a coordinating command between themselves but they’re still part of the SMC,” he said.

“If this thing is done correctly, it will actually make the insurgency much more effective,” he also said. A new rebel offensive in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege by regime forces for months, he added, showed that Islamists and moderates were capable of fighting side by side. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 160 fighters were killed in the area on Friday and Saturday.