Key Syrian rebel groups merge

The merger of rebel groups came after major regime advances on key battlegrounds around Damascus and Aleppo

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Six powerful Islamist rebel groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Friday their unification into one organization in a bid to consolidate their efforts against a surging regime’s army backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi militants.

“Thank God, the complete merger of the major military factions fighting in Syria has been announced,” Liwa al-Tawhid spokesman Abu Firas said in a posting on Facebook.

The groups merged days after the death of Liwa al-Tawhid’s charismatic military chief Abdel Qader Saleh, who had reportedly made calls for such a rebel alliance.

According to Abu Firas, the groups merging their troops, estimated at 45,000, were Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, the Army of Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq and the Ansar al-Sham battalions.

All the groups are Islamist and merged “under the banner of ‘There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet’“, said Abu Firas, citing the Islamic profession of faith.

Speaking to AFP over the Internet, Abu Firas said “the doors are open to all the military factions, and a committee is working to study the entrance of all groups that also want to join” the merger.

“It has been decided that all the factions’ military, media, humanitarian and administrative offices will merge over a transitional period of three months,” he added.

The merger of the Islamic groups also is meant to stave off challenges from the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a powerful rebel brigade composed mostly of foreign Sunni fighters, said a spokesman and another activist close to the new group.

Another powerful al-Qaeda linked group, the Nusra Front, did not join the unified brigades. The spokesman said the Nusra Front wanted groups to join under its banner.

The spokesman said unifying the groups and their supply lines would take months because of communication problems challenging all of Syria’s rebel forces.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, called the merger “an extremely significant development,” according to Associated Press.

“The most militarily powerful Islamist rebel groups have effectively united their forces,” Lister wrote in an analysis.

The spokesman also said the Islamic Front wouldn’t have relations with the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. That coalition has seen its influence erode as rebels move away from the Turkish-based group toward generous Gulf donors.

Meanwhile, fighting raged Friday in the mountainous Qalamoun area north of Damascus that stretches to the Lebanese border, activists reported. The area is crucial for rebels to maintain smuggling routes to opposition-held areas south of Damascus and to the central city of Homs, AP reported.

Since fighting there began last week, Assad’s forces seized the town of Qara. On Friday, rebels seized the nearby town of Deir Attiyeh, severing the key Damascus-Homs highway that runs through the town, said Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. An activist identified as Amer with the Qalamoun Media Center also confirmed the capture.

Al-Qaeda rebels dominated the fighting, using waves of suicide car bombers, Abdurrahman told AP.

As well as daily violence, rebel areas are racked with insecurity and criminality that flourish with the lack of a centralized authority.

(With AFP and AP)

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