Cracks Continue to Appear in Syrian Opposition

Syria's most powerful rebel battalions reject Syrian National Coalition, amid claims of sex trafficking by Islamist rebels.

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Ari Soffer,

Syrian rebels in Aleppo
Syrian rebels in Aleppo
AFP photo

The already fractious Syrian rebel movement has seen a widening gulf emerge between rebel battalions on the ground inside Syria, and the mainly foreign-based "political" opposition.

On Tuesday, Syria's 13 most powerful Islamist rebel battalions signed a joint declaration rejecting the Syrian National Coalition, which has received much international diplomatic recognition, but which stands accused of irrelevancy by Syrian rebels in conflict zone itself.

"The National Coalition and the proposed government under (recently chosen) Ahmad Tomeh does not represent us, nor do we recognize it," said the statement according to The Telegraph, written on behalf of armed Islamist factions ranging from the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to independent and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups.

Reflecting the Islamist character of the battalions it represented, the declaration went on to call for the implementation of "Sharia" (Islamic law) in Syria, as well as a move towards "national unity" and away from factional infighting.

Its timing is significant, coming as internecine fighting between rebel groups in Syria continues to escalate beyond the pre-existing tensions between Arab and Kurdish groups, and radical Islamists and more secular battalions.

"Sex jihad"

It also comes as Islamist rebels face potentially damaging accusations of sex trafficking, which have already harmed their standing in certain Arab states.

Tunisia in particular has seen a large number of its citizens travel to engage in fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But in recent months Tunisian authorities have also raised the alarm over a phenomenon that jihadi rebels are referring to as "sex jihad," whereby Muslim women are encouraged to travel to Syria in order to "satisfy" Islamist rebels on the battlefield. 

Women claiming to have been to Syria for that purpose have been interviewed by a number of Arabic-language media outlets, and often return pregnant and infected with sexually-transmitted viruses. Syria's Interior Minister recently lashed out at Islamist groups accused of recruiting young men and women in Tunisia, in a televised statement to the Tunisian parliament.

A joint statement of this kind will be seen as an attempt to present a coherent and united alternative to the sidelined "political" opposition, as a means of shoring up the rebel movement's base of support abroad.