BEIRUT

Middle East

Islamist rebels challenge National Coalition

Kfaranbel demo tells Islamists: “Your job is to protect us, not establish states.”

BEIRUT: A group of Islamist rebel factions in Aleppo has emphatically denounced the Syrian National Coalition and vowed to establish an Islamic state in Syria, highlighting the newly formed body’s struggle to shore up the ranks of the armed opposition.

But while the Islamist declaration generated vocal outrage by opposition activists and was at odds with rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, the National Coalition has at best a short honeymoon period in which to score tangible achievements.

A video posted on YouTube late Sunday showed representatives from more than a dozen Islamist rebel factions gathered in Aleppo to express their rejection of “the so-called conspiratorial ‘National Coalition,’” which was established in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 11 by leading opposition groups and figures.

The National Coalition was formed after pressure from Washington, which was disappointed with the performance over the last year by the principal opposition-in-exile bloc, the Syrian National Council.

The fighter who reads the announcement adds that the Islamist rebel factions are “unanimously agreed on establishing a just Islamic state,” as they reject any type of “foreign [-sponsored] coalitions and councils that are imposed on us.”

After the speaker concludes his short statement, one of the fighters standing around a long table adds an impromptu appeal to make the Quran the Constitution of a new Syrian state.

The Aleppo statement is made in the name of the Nusra Front, Tawhid Brigade and a host of other hard-line Islamist groups.

The mainstream FSA, according to Col. Malek al-Kurdi, its Turkey-based deputy commander, rejected the announcement and speculated that it had been made without the knowledge of the groups supposedly represented.

“We are trying, along with many battalions, to achieve the unity of arms against the regime of Bashar Assad,” Kurdi told The Daily Star.

“We do not support any talk of formation of [Islamic] emirates ... the people will decide the type of regime” that should be established if the Assad government falls, he continued.

Kurdi dismissed the criticism by the Aleppo Islamists that the National Coalition was a foreign-dominated organization. “We support the National Coalition, which remains incomplete” in terms of its membership, he said, referring to the fact that the FSA had yet to be named to the group’s executive committee because it was involved in its own re-organization drive.

Kurdi said that foreign countries were supporting the attempts to unify the armed opposition into a single command structure, but “this doesn’t mean that the National Coalition is subject to a foreign agenda.”

The Aleppo announcement provoked objections and outrage by wide swathes of pro-uprising Syrians – they might not be enamored of the FSA, but view the brazen declaration of an Islamic state as contradicting the goals of the uprising.

The authenticity of the statement is also in doubt, as spokesmen from at least two of the main Islamist groups, the Tawhid Brigade and the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, disassociated themselves from the development, in comments to Al-Jazeera television.

The head of the National Coalition, Ahmad Moaz Khatib, told Al-Jazeera he had doubts about how representative the statement was, and said “the street,” and not individual rebel groups, would decide Syria’s political future.

Displeasure was also expressed at the grassroots level. In the Idlib village of Kfaranbel, which has become famous for its elaborate and pithy signs and placards during the 20-month uprising, protesters Monday denounced the Aleppo statement.

They asked the Islamist groups whether they had completed the task at hand, namely protecting civilians and stopping the killing, before they could go on to “establish states,” and concluded with the simple “your statement does not represent us.”

Nearly 500 protests were staged throughout Syria Friday under the slogan of supporting the National Coalition in its drive to secure foreign backing and equipment for the military struggle against the Assad regime – but this doesn’t mean that the fledgling group has embarked on a promising start.

National Coalition figures, led by Khatib, have begun making the rounds of Arab and European capitals in a drive to secure diplomatic recognition.

The group has named an Alawite dissident, Monzer Makhous, as Syria’s envoy to France, now that Paris has declared the coalition the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

But on the ground, the Coalition has failed to attract leading opposition figures based inside the country.

Veteran secular dissidents such as Haitham Mannaa and Louay Hussein have lambasted the National Coalition for what they say is an objectionable dependence on foreign countries for political and other types of support.

The birth of the National Coalition was supposed to help spark a unification of the disparate rebel groups inside Syria, but neither the coalition nor the FSA has unveiled this long-promised step.

“We are in the process of being born again,” Kurdi said, promising that an important announcement in this regard would appear within the coming days.

As for its other tasks, the National Coalition has pledged to set up various committees and bodies to prepare for a post-Assad era. But it began by naming an ambassador, a largely symbolic political move, meaning little to people who want an immediate flow of humanitarian aid, and ideally an end to violence.

In recent days, the stream of YouTube videos posted by activists and rebels inside Syria have highlighted how the National Coalition might deserve a cautious welcome, but that people will quickly sour on the group if it reminds them of the dysfunctional Syrian National Council.

In one video, a man in the central village of Houla stands in a field hospital, following what he says was shelling by government troops, as it receives gravely wounded civilians and suffers from a shortage of medicine and equipment.

Addressing the National Coalition, the man, increasingly agitated, repeats the plea, “This is what we are dealing with, so give us what you have!”

“This isn’t a time for posts and prestige ... you need to give something to the people being killed every day!”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2012, on page 8.

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