New Syrian Islamist alliance presents major challenge for the west

An unidentified Syrian rebel fighter patrolling the streets near Aleppo. Some rebel groups have formed a new ‘bloc’ in a blow to the official SNC opposition. EPA/Stringer

The beleaguered National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) was dealt another blow this week when competing opposition groups announced the formation of a new Islamist bloc, made up of 13 groups operating inside the war-torn nation.

One of the bloc’s first orders of business was to reject the SNC’s authority. It was only last month that the SNC began making preparations to govern rebel-held areas in Syria and provide quasi-state services to residents.

This announcement represents a serious challenge to the Gulf and western-backed SNC, which is recognised by more than 100 governments as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The new bloc includes the most important armed groups in Syria, including the al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra. Now probably the most-powerful opposition alliance, the new rebel bloc may represent somewhere in the region of 30,000 to 50,000 fighters.

According to analyst Charles Lister of terrorism intelligence centre IHS Jane’s 360, these groups form the “core” of armed opposition groups, noting that “the entire nature of the opposition may well have undergone a massive shift tonight, with very significant implications for” the SNC.

If the bloc lasts - and many don’t in Syria - it could represent a serious threat to the Syrian regime, altering the power balance in favour of the opposition. Until now, the fractious nature of the opposition has been its greatest barrier to overthrowing president Bashar al-Assad. Although the new bloc may not completely stifle internal division, it will likely change the power balance amongst warring groups.

However, it is notable that a key al-Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has been excluded from the bloc, with indications that it has already mounted a violent response. As a result, the bloc’s emergence may not be completely smooth sailing.

The full significance of the bloc will not become clear for months, but its emergence implies that change is underway in the Syrian conflict. The bloc’s formation has dealt a major blow to the SNC’s international credibility as it has drawn the SNC’s limited ability to shape the conflict sharply into focus. Dominated by groups living in exile, the SNC is perceived to be out of touch with people inside Syria, a reality that the international community has been slow to recognise.

As a result, the SNC has struggled for relevance in a conflict increasingly dominated by those with boots and fighters on the ground - making the emergence of a competing bloc almost inevitable. The fact that three of the bloc’s new member groups - Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham - made up the bulk of the SNC’s presence within Syria suggests a further erosion of SNC influence.

The announcement of the new bloc is also ill-timed, as SNC representatives are currently in New York lobbying UN member states for support. The SNC’s leader Ahmad al-Jarba cancelled a news conference in New York on Thursday, signalling his awareness of the SNC’s troubles.

The SNC, led by Ahmad al-Jarba (right), is supported by many western powers such as the UK and the US. What problems will the new Islamist bloc pose for the SNC’s alliances? EPA/British Foreign Office

While the new bloc is Islamist, it is important to not overstate what this means for Syria. The bloc’s Islamist nature is of note only insofar as it reflects the increasing relevance of Islamists in the conflict. While the bloc claims to want to build a future Syria under a vague “Islamic framework”, no further details have been released, ensuring that it is too early to discuss what this may or may not represent.

Furthermore, the diversity of the groups within the bloc - which includes Sufis, quietest Salafis, as well as hardline groups - means that the bloc would struggle to reach ideological consensus, making this element of the bloc’s platform largely meaningless.

It is clear that the marginalisation of the SNC will represent a challenge for western countries, as the SNC has been the preferred link to the Syrian opposition. While the SNC’s professional headquarters in Istanbul, savvy diplomatic skills and moderate Islamist credentials have made it palatable to western donor states, the emergence of this new bloc will highlight the west’s isolation from non-SNC groups participating in the conflict. However, some of the Gulf States directly fund a number of the bloc’s member groups, ensuring that the bloc is not completely isolated from resources and foreign influence.

The result of these developments means that the west is likely to lose what limited leverage it has in the conflict, particularly given the bloc has stated its opposition to western initiatives. This may also impact the viability of the chemical weapons agreement brokered earlier this month between the US, Russia and Assad.

However, America’s stated objective has always been to unite the Syrian opposition. While it appears that this may now have happened, whether this opposition is of the type that the US would like is a different question altogether.

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