Islamist Groups Reject Western-Backed Syrian Opposition
Several Islamist extremist groups in northern Syria have announced that they reject the new Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition, the New York Times reported Monday. The reports came shortly after the European Union announced its support for the coalition, and underline the rebel forces’ continued challenges in controlling the rebellion’s direction.
Monday’s vote of confidence from the European Union marked a step forward for Syrian opposition groups, as they have become increasingly credible in the eyes of Western powers.
The United States urged the formation of the National Coalition to present a more unified front to Western supporters. France was the only Western country to extend diplomatic recognition to the coalition as the official representatives of the Syrian people, and the U.K. has stated that it will deliberate the issue this week. Turkey and the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the opposition group.
But growing Western recognition could be fragmented by Sunday night’s announcement from Islamist extremists. According to the Lebanon Daily Star:
Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said Monday the Islamists' declaration will unsettle both Western backers of the Syrian opposition and groups inside Syria, ranging from secularists to the Christian minority.
"They have to feel that the future of their country could be slipping away," Shaikh said. "This is a sign of things to come the longer this goes on. The Islamist groups and extremists will increasingly be forging alliances and taking matters into their own hands." The West is particularly concerned about sending weapons to rebels for fear they could end up in extremists' hands.
The Islamists' announcement, made in an online video released Sunday, shows the competing influences within the rebellion, between religious hardliners who want to create an Islamic state in Syria - including foreign al-Qaida-style jihadi fighters - and the newly formed Syrian National Coalition, which was created earlier this month in hopes of uniting the disparate groups fighting Assad's regime.
National Coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib deemphasized the rejection by Islamist groups, calling the video announcement an expression of “personal opinion” and stating that they will “keep in contact with them for more cooperation in the interest of the Syrian people.” Al-Khatib also announced Monday that the group will be headquartered in Cairo.
Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the course of Syria’s 20-month civil war, according to opposition groups. Formal recognition of the coalition by international powers could mean stronger weapon distribution to rebel groups as they work to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Fighting continued Monday along the Syrian-Turkish border as Syrian residents continue to flee to nearby nations. According to the UN refugee office, around 414,000 civilians are in neighboring countries as refugees.
Read more Neon Tommy coverage of the Syrian conflict here.