Antakya, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership, led by Gen. Salim Idris, met with senior Islamist rebel commanders in Reyhanli in Turkey on Tuesday, in a last ditch attempt to stave off a major split in the ranks of Syria’s rebels.
Syria’s Islamist factions have threatened to withdraw from the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, citing a number of issues.
The two sides ultimately agreed to form a dialogue committee consisting of representatives of all parties to seek a solution. Mousa Hamdou, a senior member of the Syrian Martyrs Brigades, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the committee will meet over the next few days to attempt to resolve the differences between the two sides.
“The Islamist brigades want to impose some conditions or withdraw from the FSA chiefs of staff, which is not acceptable. We, the FSA, also have our conditions,” he said.
The division between Syria’s Islamist and secular rebel forces revolve around both the funding and coordination of military operations on the ground, and political decision-making and international representation. It was disagreement over these issues that prompted the rebel Islamist brigades to take a common position against the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, led by Ahmad Al-Jarba.
The Islamist factions are led by four rebel commanders in charge of operations in Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa. They are: Zahran Alloush, commander of Islam Brigade in Rif Dimashq, Haj Mara’a (Abdelkader Saleh), commander of Al-Tawhid Brigade, Isa Al-Sheikh, commander of Suqour Al-Sham, and Abu Talha, commander of Ahrar Al-Sham.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Abu Talha, commander of Ahar Al-Sham, the largest armed Islamist faction in Syria. It includes military, rescue, and engineering units and is responsible for delivering the salaries of workers in the town of Raqqa, according to its leaders.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Abu Talha said: “The FSA leadership was established under circumstances which were neither natural, nor healthy, resulting in a body which does not meet our aspirations.”
Although differences have always existed between the Islamist factions and the FSA leadership, the Islamist factions have lately announced their intention to completely withdraw from both the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition.
Abu Talha said: “If our differences with the chiefs of staff and the coalition are not resolved, we will form new military and political bodies, [including] a political body that will truly represent our people inside Syria.”
“The Coalition only represents itself and the countries which support it. We consider ourselves to be the real representatives of the rebels,” he added.
Though Ahrar Al-Sham has close links with countries such as Turkey and Qatar which have supported it because of its influence over large parts of liberated territory in Syria, “it refused to be affiliated to any country,” Abu Talha said.
Syria’s rebels can be broadly split into three camps, the FSA, the Islamists, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front. The Islamist factions have said that their aim, if they form a new military command, is to combat the creeping influence of ISIS, which is affiliated to the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
Abu Talha highlighted the difference between the various factions among Syria’s opposition. He said: “The main problem is the fighting over sovereignty,” adding that these differences have exhausted the rebels and allowed the Syrian regime to advance on a number of fronts, particularly Aleppo.
Abu Talha said he is confident that the rebels will be able to stop the regime’s advances. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Despite the fact that we are fighting six countries on the ground, the regime still cannot win and cannot regain what it has lost, it is only trying to regain control over supply routes and is managing minor victories. The regime needs a new army to regain what it has lost.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the factions are trying to present a more moderate discourse regarding relations with international powers. In their recent meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah in Istanbul, they left the door open to the possibility of dialogue with the international powers, despite not changing their decision not to attend the planned Geneva II peace conference—and their declaration that anyone who participate in it is a traitor.
Abu Talha said: “There will be no peaceful solution unless Bashar Al-Assad goes,” adding that “we are the ones who hold the territory and we are the ones who hold the political decision.”