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Syria: New Rebel Alliance to Rival Islamists

Syrian Revolutionary Front an attempt by sidelined Free Syrian Army to present an alternative to Islamist Syrian Islamic Front.
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 12/17/2013, 2:57 PM

Illustration: rebels target regime aircraft
Illustration: rebels target regime aircraft
Screenshot

Some Syrian rebel brigades fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have reportedly set up a new alliance of Syrian, hoping to revive their waning influence as Islamist factions gain momentum at its expense.

The Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) is being touted as a more "moderate" alternative to the Islamic Front (IF), which was formed last month, uniting the largest Islamist rebel brigades under a single command. The Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) and Nusra Front were not included in the alliance, although Islamic Front brigades have cooperated with them at times on the battlefield.

The new Syrian Revolutionary Front is made up of 14 more secular rebel brigades, according to Lebanon's Daily Star, and comes at a critical time.

The ability of Islamist rebel groups to merge under a single banner - with a combined force of around 60,000 fighters - further sidelined the Free Syrian Army and its Supreme Military Council (SMC), led by former Syrian Army commander General Salim Idriss. The FSA had been favored by western powers, but regularly complained of a lack of practical support from western states, who were weary of weapons falling into the hands of Islamist extremists.

On the battlefield itself, the FSA appears to have lost its grip on parts of northern Syria formerly held by it, after an embarrassing incident in which Islamic Front battalions took over its warehouses, prompting Washington and Britain to suspend supplies of "non-lethal aid" into northern Syria.

After initial reports that the storehouses had been seized by the Islamists, conflicting reports surfaced that the FSA had actually invited them to take control, after admitting it could not prevent them from falling into the hands of even more radical, Al Qaeda-linked groups. Either way, it presented a clear illustration of the ongoing collapse of the "moderate" Syrian opposition in the face of Islamists.

To make matters worse, FSA leader Salim Idriss was then reported to have fled the country to neighboring Turkey. Idriss and sources close to him vehemently denied the claims, but the ongoing fiasco was enough to prompt a senior member of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition to slam the former army general's efforts as a "failure".

"Salim Idris has failed to make an institution... I don't think everything can continue in the same way," said Asa'ad Mustafa, the SNC's "defense minister".

Perhaps more crucially on the diplomatic front, the decision by the US and European powers to hold formal talks with Islamic Front representatives, coupled with Saudi Arabia's own decision to break with western powers over Syria and divert its resources from the FSA to the Army of Islam (a faction within the Islamic Front), seemed to be the nail in the coffin.

But according to Swedish researcher Aron Lund, the Syrian Rebel Front could mark a turning point for the beleaguered FSA, despite its members being relegated to the status "second-tier actors" by more successful Islamist brigades.

"Real unity between them could create a significant force on the ground, especially if backed by strong foreign funding," he said in a report for the Cernegie Middle East Center.

However, he cautioned that "there’s little to indicate that the SRF’s creation is underpinned by any real ideological or political agenda. Instead, it seems very much to be a case of coming together against a common enemy – the Islamist surge in general and the Islamic Front in particular."

"That the SRF was declared almost immediately after the warehouses were taken over is probably no coincidence," he added.

"If that was 'a complete coup' against the SMC, then cobbling together the SRF is a countercoup."