WASHINGTON — The Syrian opposition took a big step forward this month by forming a broad political coalition that includes local activists who started the revolution. But the opposition’s military command is still a mess, and until it’s fixed, jihadist extremists will keep getting more powerful.
As I wrote after my trip inside Syria in early October, a stronger command-and-control structure is crucial in creating an opposition force that can accomplish two essential tasks: defeating President Bashar al-Assad and maintaining order in Syria after he falls. The U.S. had encouraged the rebels to form provincial “military councils” to achieve better coordination. But the rebel forces have continued to splinter in recent weeks.
Talking with some of the Free Syrian Army activists who arranged my trip into Syria, I’ve heard examples of the chaos caused by bypassing the military council structure. Maj. Mohammed Ali and Maj. Maher Noaimi, two rebel commanders from Hama, are said to be receiving money directly from Gulf nations. “Ali and Noaimi are still serving as middlemen for all sorts of folks, and they’re working outside the MCs,” complained one report last month to the State Department about the confused funding.
Another example is Sheik Adnan Mohammed al-Aroor, an extremist cleric from Hama who receives money from Saudi Arabia and appears often on Arab television. He is said to have undercut the military councils’ coordination in northern Syria. The U.S. has urged the Saudis to cut support of Aroor, but activists say his followers remain potent on the ground.
A third example of confusion cited by rebel sources is the Farouk battalion, originally from Homs, which controls major northern border crossings into Syria. This group is said to have especially strong support from Turkey that allows it to operate outside the military council structure.
Most dangerous of all is the continuing growth of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group that receives funding from wealthy individuals in the Gulf. One example of the destructive, sectarian role played by the Jabhat al-Nusra is that its fighters are said to have attacked Kurdish rebels recently in Ras al-Ain, in northeastern Syria. The extremist group’s influence is also growing because its fighters, eager for martyrdom, are the toughest.
Syrian activists warn that chaos will continue until the various governments that support the opposition pool their money and disseminate it through the provincial councils. “Stop asking us to unify until you unify yourselves,” a Syrian activist warned a U.S. official recently.
The U.S. plans to step up its efforts to work with key backers of the opposition — such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and France — to build a stronger command structure. U.S. officials specifically applaud the efforts of several military council commanders who have tried to foster unity, such as Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi in Aleppo, Col. Afif Suleiman in Idlib and Gen. Ziad al-Fahd and Col. Khalid Alhoubos in Damascus.
One key role for these councils is to broaden the opposition beyond its Sunni jihadist roots. Akidi, for example, is said to have twice met recently with a Syrian Christian bishop in Aleppo to assure Christians that they will be safe if the opposition wins. “If this is the future, we can work with it,” the bishop reportedly said afterward.
The political opposition formed a united front this month after a meeting in Doha, Qatar, that created a new group formally called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It has since been recognized by France, Britain, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union. Political unity followed pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on regional powers that had been backing different groups that were constantly squabbling.
Unfortunately, the rebel military council leadership was not included in the Doha effort. Military leaders such as Akidi thought they would be invited, but the invitations never came. This has added to demoralization.
U.S. and Syrian sources agree that to create military unity, the CIA will have to push friendly intelligence services to pool funding and other support behind a unified command. U.S. officials hope that process will happen over the next month, but rebel leaders fear this could be too late.
A coherent, non-extremist military structure is crucial, finally, because it could provide the path for an eventual settlement that halts all-out sectarian war. Otherwise, this will be a fight to the death between Assad’s goons and radical jihadists — with poor Syria shattered in the process.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.