Powerful Syrian insurgent units have rejected the authority of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), badly damaging efforts by Western-backed political exiles to forge a moderate rebel military force on the ground. Thirteen groups, including at least three previously considered part of the coalition's military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), signed a statement calling for the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad to be reorganised under an Islamic framework and to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria.
The signatories range from hardliners such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham battalions to more moderate Islamist groups such as the Tawheed Brigade and Islam Brigade. Charles Lister of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre said the three moderate Islamist groups which signed the statement - the Tawheed Brigade, the Islam Brigade and Suqor al-Sham - had represented SNC's main rebel presence on the ground.
"The inclusion of the core of the SNC force...effectively depletes the SNC's armed wing, the Syrian Military Council," Lister said. "It is likely that the moderate Islamist coalition has ceased to exist as a single organisation structure."
Islamist forces grew in power as the Syrian conflict changed from peaceful protests into an armed insurgency after a fierce crackdown by Assad's forces. Militant groups, some linked to al Qaeda, have become even stronger in the ensuing civil war.
Many Islamist groups that do not share al Qaeda's ideology had maintained a pragmatic stance. But the statement indicates that Tawheed and others have closed ranks with hardliners on the ground rather than the Western- and Gulf-backed SNC abroad.
"These forces call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation," the statement said.