Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U.S. backdown emboldens Syrian radicals

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SYRIA'S exiled opposition long has struggled to influence the course of the civil war. Its ambitions may have been dashed for good, however, by those who do the actual fighting.

On Sept. 24, 11 of Syria's strongest rebel brigades jointly announced their rejection of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the broadly moderate, Istanbul-based dissident leadership that is recognized by western and Gulf governments.

Syrians outside the country and those picked by foreigners have no authority, a rebel spokesman said. Moreover, he declared, Syria's revolution must be pursued "within a clear Islamic framework," based on sharia law.

New associations come and go in Syria, but this one includes the most powerful and active front-line forces, ranging from moderate Islamists such as Liwa al-Tawheed, which previously pledged allegiance to the coalition's military wing, the Supreme Military Command, to jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate. The decision by groups such as Tawheed to partner with radical Islamists guts the military command.

Islamist fighters of varying hues have grown to dominate Syria's mosaic of rebel groups. Outside support for jihadists, which comes mostly from networks in the Persian Gulf, has proven more reliable than the stop-start flow that foreign governments direct to western-approved rivals.

The decision to go public is in part due to recent events in Egypt, one rebel says. The coup that ousted President Muhammad Morsi and outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood showed that Islamists have nothing to gain from paying lip service to democracy.

Western powers now will find their proxies to have less influence than ever. In the month since America backed away from missile strikes to punish Syria's regime for using chemical weapons, the S.O.C. has become increasingly irrelevant. Strikes would have bolstered moderates, including Selim Idriss, a defected general who heads the military command. The ensuing deal between Russia and America, whereby Syria's regime must hand over its chemical weapons, was perceived as coming at the expense of the rebels.

The opposition schism renders the prospect of a negotiated end to the conflict in the near future flimsier still. However, the new joint fighting force could act as a bulwark against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al-Qaida group manned largely by foreign mujahideen that is more radical than Jabhat al-Nusra.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A17

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