BEIRUT: Secular and Islamist rebel fighters in Syria are divided over support and opposition for a proposed U.S. strike against Bashar Assad’s regime, hardening divisions between opposition forces and highlighting potential complications in U.S support for the rebels. U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval for limited military strikes in Syria to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in an attack Washington says killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.
The secular rebel leadership, loosely collected under the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council and the opposition Syrian National Coalition backed by the U.S, Saudi Arabia and their allies, say they want any U.S strike to be big enough to strategically dent Assad’s military might.
Military Council leaders inside Syria offered cautious backing for any strike, on the condition it was coupled with more material support and weapons to help them shift the balance of power on the ground and enable them to wrestle back power from hostile Islamist forces making gains in the north of the country.
Islamist rebels, fighting for an Islamic state in Syria, meanwhile released videos and statements this week announcing their opposition to any U.S. strike and vowing to confront any American aggression in Syria.
“We, the jihad brigades and all popular Islamic factions on the blessed land of Sham announce our rejection of military intervention by Western infidels against our people,” a group of eight jihadist brigades said in a joint video statement released on YouTube.
“We consider it ... a new aggression against our Islamic nation.”
Tensions between Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and more organized and better trained Al-Qaeda-aligned factions from the Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and others have soared in recent months. Clashes between the rebel factions saw the slaying of FSA commanders at the hands of ISIS in Latakia and Idlib, while FSA brigades have clashed with ISIS fighters for control of the northern city of Raqqa.
“We are distancing ourselves from those who support Western military intervention from the opposition at home and abroad, and remind [them] of crimes committed by America, Europe, Russia and their allies against Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, the Caucasus and Chechnya,” the statement said.
“We will face [these enemies] with all our strength.”
The U.S. has blacklisted the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, and fears that weapons could land in the hands of Islamist fighters hostile to the U.S. have delayed greater Western support for the armed opposition.
Some commentators have suggested a U.S. strike on Syria could also target Al-Qaeda forces. In a sign that Islamist groups are preparing for such an attack, Islamist forces were reported to have begun moving military locations to avoid being targeted, pulling out from positions in Raqqa and elsewhere.
Hasan Ameen, a member of the Military Council in Homs province, sent a letter to senators in Congress this week asking for the U.S to strengthen the FSA ahead of any strike and urging them to consider the consequences of a strike that fell short of aiming to oust Assad.
“I don’t support the U.S. strike – not before the Supreme Military Council and the Syrian National Coalition are ready to handle the country,” he told The Daily Star.
In the letter, Ameen asked the senators to consider the ground scenarios post-strike and how to bolster resistance to Islamist forces. “We are asking who the strike will strengthen,” he said.
“Will you support the FSA with more weapons to fight the extremists? Even if they ... have more weapons I am not sure if they will fight the extremists, or if the FSA is able to win the battle against the extremists and controls these areas,” he wrote in the letter, pointing to several examples of extremist gains in the north.
“We Syrians will ask you to support us with American specialist fighters to fight the extremists and ... finally put American boots on the Syrian ground.”
Syrian opposition figure and history professor in Ohio Amr al-Azm said he would be “surprised” if the U.S. combined a strike against Assad with a strike on Al-Qaeda. “They [the U.S.] have been framing this solely as a response to chemical weapons,” Azm said.
“It muddies the waters somewhat. I suspect once they have completed an initial set of strikes they have a window of about 90 days to go back and strike [other targets]”
“But I would be very surprised if they did it concurrently.”