New Islamist Bloc splits Syrian opposition: who will lead after Assad?

2013-10-04 07:43

The recent emergence of a new Islamist Bloc (IB) comprising 13 rebel factions has placed the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) under increasing pressure, especially since the IB’s outright rejection of the SNC’s position as the rebels’ official government in exile.

Although the opposition in Syria has always been fragmented under the broad leadership of the SNC, the formation of the IB is seen as a significant split between the two. One of the reasons for this is that three of the IB’s member groups form the majority of the SNC’s support base in Syria. These are Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqour al-Sham and Liwa al-Islam, all of whose members formed part of, or were aligned to the Free Syrian Army which has now been severely depleted. A second reason is that the Al Qaeda-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra is included in the IB and is considered to be one of the most important rebel groups in Syria. Some analysts put the IB’s strength at as much as 50 000 fighters which would make it a very powerful opposition group.

The broader political implication of the split is that the Western-backed SNC has been marginalised in the sense that it has been the preferred pathway to the Syrian opposition, not only for the United States (US), but also for Syria’s supporters in the Persian Gulf. An increasingly isolated SNC will most likely result in the West losing touch with opposition forces on the ground. The US’ chances of fostering relations with the IB also seem slim since the IB has already stated its opposition to Western peace initiatives.

Then there is the question of the Islamist nature of the IB, which signals the increasing relevance of Islamists in the conflict, and thus the further alienation of the US. It has been reported that the IB, who currently fights under a broad Islamic framework, wants to install Sharia Law in a post-Assad Syria. This state of affairs is however balanced by the fact that one of the larger Al-Qaeda factions, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has been excluded from the IB which will only contribute to the already fragmented nature of opposition forces in general. The exclusion may also lead to retaliation against the IB which in itself is everything but ideologically united.

From a broader perspective the establishment of the IB will probably contribute to the longevity and brutal nature of the civil war, a civil war which is actually three conflicts taking place at the same time. The first and most obvious struggle is that of the Syrian people against its government. The second is a long standing confrontation between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region, and the third between allies of Iran and their opponents. It is not a coincidence that many of the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia are supporting the Syrian rebels. It is done in the first place as a reaction against Iran.

President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite faith which can be traced back to the Shia Muslims and has filled the highest positions of his militia, security services and military with fellow Alawites. In contrast the majority of the rebels are Sunni Muslims who come to stand not only against the Alawites, but also a section of Syria’s Christian population who are afraid of a takeover by Sunni Islamists. Although the Alawites comprise just more than 10 per cent of the total Syrian population, they are in addition to their powerful role in the security services, also a majority in the governing and business elite.

However, if the IB manages to stick together it could signal the start of a more united opposition, albeit one that would not necessarily be to the liking of the US and its allies.

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