UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT: The United States, Russia, France, China and Britain have agreed on the core of a U.N Security Council resolution to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, two diplomats said Wednesday.
The agreement came after the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the council met U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier in the day, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
They said a draft resolution could be presented to the full 15-nation council soon and the five permanent members would also meet Friday to discuss a proposed peace conference in Geneva.On the ground in Syria, thousands of rebels have broken with the Western-backed coalition and called for a new Islamist front, undermining international efforts to build up a pro-Western military force to replace President Bashar Assad.
Ever more divided on a battlefield where Assad’s better armed troops have been gaining ground, allies of the Free Syrian Army were among 13 disparate rebel factions to disown the exile leadership and build an Islamic alliance that includes the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, commanders said Tuesday.Details of the numbers of fighters involved and of how they would cooperate remained unclear.
But, in an online video, a leader of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade said the bloc rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition and the Western- and Saudi-backed exile administration of Ahmad Toumeh.A spokesman for Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba, who was attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York, said Jarba would head for Syria Thursday to respond: “We are not going to negotiate with individual groups.
We are going to come up with a better structure for organizing the fighting forces,” spokesman Louay Safi said. The move is a setback for foreign leaders trying to bolster more secular rebel groups and to reassure voters skeptical of deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war.
Some may think again about aid for the fighters, which ranges from weaponry from the Gulf to non-lethal aid from Europe and the U.N.For Assad, already cheered by Russian diplomatic assistance that undermined U.S. plans to bomb his forces following a poison gas attack, a more powerful rebel coalition could challenge his army’s resurgence in the field. But that could be more than offset by a weakening of international backing for his foes.
Though some moderate Islamist fighters denied the move meant a more radical, sectarian approach, a more visible role for Islamist radicals at the expense of the SNC may bolster Assad’s argument that the alternative to his rule is a Syria run by Al-Qaeda.
The most hard-line Islamist militant faction, Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which has brought growing numbers of foreign jihadists into Syria, was not a signatory to the new pact. It was unclear, however, whether it had rejected involvement or had not been invited to join.
The 13 groups signed a statement calling for the opposition to Assad to be reorganized under a Shariah framework and run only by groups fighting inside Syria. Signatories range from hard-liners like Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham to more moderate groups such as the Tawhid Brigade and the Islam Brigade.
“These forces feel that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country do not represent them, so the forces will not recognize them,” said the statement read online by Abdul-Aziz Salameh, the political leader of the Tawhid Brigade.“Therefore the National Coalition and its supposed government led by Ahmad Toumeh do not represent them and will not be recognized,” he said.Since the two-and-a-half-year-old revolt against Assad began, Syria’s opposition forces have been riven with factionalism and rivalries.
There have also been tensions between Islamist groups and those that support a secular vision for a post-Assad Syria. Assad and his Russian allies have highlighted how a revolt that began in 2011 with demands for democracy has seen the rise of sectarian hatreds between the Sunni majority and Assad’s Alawite sect.
That also worries other minorities in Syria’s complex society, including Christians and ethnic Kurds.Gulf Arab support for the rebels has highlighted the war’s role in a broader regional confrontation between Sunnis and Shiite Iran, which backs Assad and Shiite Arab movements.Rebel fighters and opposition activists rejected the portrayal of the statement as a blow to moderate forces, however. They saw it rather as a unification of rebels on the ground while sidelining the small but powerful ISIS.
“There is a lot of distortion of the rebel movement ... This is not a blow to the moderates,” said an Islam Brigade fighter who did not want to be identified when criticizing Al-Qaeda. “The front is divided between the radical groups who follow ISIS and the others who are Islamist but accept minorities and want to follow a more moderate Islamist interpretation for the country. This does not change that.”
The anti-FSA shift may also be territorial – most of those who signed up to the new bloc are from brigades in northern Syria, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory. No major forces from eastern and southern Syria appear to support it. Deraa, on the border with Jordan, is the main transit point for supplies from Western and Gulf states. The presence of hard-line Islamists there is weaker.
A figure in the Free Syrian Army’s command said the announcement had taken its leadership by surprise. “I don’t even know what to say,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There were some very important factions who joined. And from my perspective, they gave no warning.
”He said FSA commanders were meeting to discuss the statement and may try to negotiate with their former partners.
Khaled Khoja, representative of the SNC in Turkey, estimated the 13 groups had around 20,000 fighters and said they effectively controlled northern Syria.He said their move might have been prompted by a lack of consultation by the Coalition when it announced its formation of an interim government this month led by Toumeh.
But he hoped they might still be persuaded to change their minds.“This situation can still be solved through recognition of those brigades, allowing them to participate in the decision-making and providing them with support,” he said.
“We have ignored them for two-and-a-half years even though they were the most effective groups.”Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center said the three moderate Islamist groups that signed the statement – the Tawhid Brigade, the Islam Brigade and Sukour al-Sham – had represented SNC’s main fighting force.“It is likely that the moderate Islamist coalition has ceased to exist as a single organization structure,” he said.
“These forces call on military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that ... is based on Shariah, making it the sole source of legislation.”Whatever their ideological background, many opposition groups inside Syria are skeptical and resentful of the SNC.Critics accuse it of not being transparent with funding and in its political processes.
They say it is out of touch with people in Syria.Some Nusra Front fighters and supporters who spoke to Reuters said Nusra and its allies had been courting moderate rebels as they watched their relationship sour with the SNC.Saudi Arabia, which had increasingly taken over as the main foreign player and financier of the SNC, had been trying to sideline Islamists in favor of bolstering secular forces.
“Our brigades are tired of the SNC strategy; it is acting on the exterior and ignoring the interior. And a lot of the moderate Islamists were shoved aside when Qatar’s role was overtaken by Saudi Arabia,” one Nusra supporter said. “Saudi started aggressively supporting the secular groups.”