Patchwork of political aims evident in rebel groups


The forces opposing the Assad regime are not a coherent opposition but an amalgam of factions, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

TWO SYRIAN rebel factions, the Free Syrian Army and Liwa al-Islam, claimed the operation that killed three senior figures in the Assad regime’s crisis response team on Wednesday.

The Free Syrian Army, founded last September by Col Riad al-Assad, an early army defector based in Turkey, serves as an umbrella for loosely connected rebel units, grouped under five commands and basing themselves in key locations around Syria but not holding more than a fraction of the territory of the country.

Rebel units in Homs have not formed their own command because they cannot agree on an overall structure.

Liwa al-Islam is a little known ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafi faction which could have ties to al-Qaeda.

A source in Damascus said a bodyguard of a member of Mr Assad’s inner circle had detonated the explosives. Both factions claiming the operation said the perpetrator had planted the bomb and escaped.

Such competing claims of responsibility expose the divisions among Syria’s armed factions, which have resisted numerous efforts to unify ranks.

The Free Syrian Army was the first attempt to place rebel fighters under a single command, but this coalition has not solved the problem.

Last February, the rival Higher Military Council, led by Gen Mustafa Sheikh, tried and failed to bring together the armed factions and, in June, the Syrian Rebels Front, which claims hundreds of armed units, was set up to co-ordinate with the Free Syrian Army.

In addition to rebel groups which have a Syrian agenda, there are factions with non-Syrian objectives. This is true, for example, of a Sunni faction calling itself “Syria Rebels – Aleppo’s Rural Area” which kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shias returning home after a pilgrimage to Iran. The aim of this group is to put pressure on the Shia Hizbullah movement to apologise for supporting the Assad regime.

Al-Qaeda in Syria, an affiliate of the Iraqi franchise, and other Salafi groups, have a much wider agenda than overthrowing the Syrian regime. They seek to sweep western powers out of the entire region and establish “Islamic” regimes or an “Islamic” regime.

To complicate the picture further, rebel factions have ties to rival political opposition groupings, notably the expatriate Syrian National Council, favoured by the West in spite of heavy representation by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Local Co-ordination Committees based in Syria. The competition for funds and arms provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates fuels their divisions and prompts them to make extravagant and, on occasion, false claims.