A newly formed coalition of rebel brigades is the most unified, and most Islamist, the Syrian opposition has ever been. Uniting secular groups and hard-liners who believe in a fundamentalist reading of Sunni Islam, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) will strengthen opposition forces battling the Syrian regime, but it also leaves the U.S. with few moderate options on the ground.
Representatives from around 70 different opposition brigades met in Turkey over the past weekend, set aside their ideological differences and established the RCC. Unlike the Free Syrian Army, which, up to now, had been the face of the Syrian opposition, the RCC pulls together factions that had never cooperated before in the Syrian civil war. This leaves the U.S. with two options:
- back radical RCC members in the interest of bringing down President Bashar Assad's dictatorship; or
- keep trying to support whatever moderate groups remain outside of the new coalition.
The self-described “united body for the Syrian revolution” includes every major armed opposition force, except moderate group Harakat Hazm, formerly backed by the U.S.; some members of the Syrian Revolutionary Front; al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra; the Islamic State group; and Syrian Kurdish forces, according to Reuters. The council has also elected a representative leadership it intends will serve as an interim government if the regime falls. In the meantime, the RCC is focused on creating a unified military, and each militia is expected to contribute 100 fighters immediately, according to Lebanon's Daily Star.
“The goal of the initiative would be to create a joint leadership ... which would replace the collapsed institutions of the so-called Free Syrian Army, an exile platform supported by foreign governments as a way of funding and coordinating the rebels,” Syria expert Aron Lund wrote in a report published on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In addition to fusing religious and secular opposition forces, the RCC aimed at getting “more substantial and unified foreign support.” Broadening its support options will also diminish reliance on the U.S. for weapons and funding.
The RCC as a unit has not received any formal foreign support as of yet, Abu Mohamed al-Joulani, the leader of Islamist fighter group Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, told International Business Times. “We do not count on support as much as we count on unity,” said al-Joulani. “But I do not think America should stop supporting such a project. In general, it is supportive of the majority of existing factions.”
Al-Joulani’s brigade and several other groups now in the RCC, who used to operate under the secular FSA banner, had at one point received U.S. weapons. The U.S. recently approved funding to arm and train Syria’s moderate opposition in the fight against the group formerly known as ISIS but has yet to actually choose a group. The opposition’s quest for unity, however, may have ended its chances for U.S. funding. Supporting the RCC would mean backing radical brigades that are now part of it -- such as Ahrar al-Sham, a radical group that believes in Salafism, an especially hard-line reading of fundamentalist Sunni Islam.
Ahrar al-Sham’s last-minute decision to join the RCC and not the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian offshoot, is a major win for opposition forces, as it had “long appeared as a missing link between mainstream Islamism and radical Salafi jihadism,” according to Lund.
Though the inclusion of radical brigades may have eliminated the possibility of U.S. support, it may have also created new opportunities for funding from the Gulf States. At least two brigades, the Shields of the Revolutionary Front and the Sham Legion, are "funded and supported" by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, according to the Carnegie Endowement for International Peace. Though the Brotherhood is not designated as a terror group by the U.S., it is affiliated with one: Hamas. Jaish al-Muhajideen split from Hazm to distance itself from the U.S., and is supported by Qatar, as is former FSA brigade Liwa Fursan al-Haqq. The Islamic Front is widely believed to receive support from Saudi Arabia.
Though no formal foreign financial support has been announced, al-Joulani said, for his brigade at least, joining the RCC already had "a lot of benefits."