Syrian Islamist groups reject opposition coalition

November 19, 2012
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In this Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 photo, rebels of the Free Syrian Army clean their weapons as airstrikes by the Syrian air force drive the rebels underground, in the northwestern city of Maraat al-Numan, Syria. After months of fierce fighting for control of the vital Aleppo-Damascus highway, the rebels have succeeded in pushing the Syrian army out of the center of Maraat al-Numan located on the highway between Aleppo and Hama. (AP Photo/Mustafa Karali)

BEIRUT (AP) — A group of extremist Islamist factions in Syria has rejected the country's new opposition coalition, saying in a video statement they have formed an "Islamic state" in the embattled city of Aleppo to underline their rejection of the Western-backed bloc.

The statement was a reaction to the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, formed Nov. 11 in Qatar to unify groups trying to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The coalition is led by a popular Muslim cleric and is seen as a way to counter the growing influence of Islamic extremists in the 20-month old revolt that has claimed more than 36,000 lives.

A militant website released the video late Sunday. In it, an unknown representative for the Islamist fighters spoke beneath a black Islamic battle flag at the end of a long table seating some 20 men. Reading from a statement, he said the group rejects the new opposition body, and declared the northern city of Aleppo, a major front where many radical groups have been fighting since the summer, an "Islamic state."

"We are the representatives of the fighting formations in Aleppo and we declare our rejection of the conspiratorial project, the so-called national alliance," the statement said. "We have unanimously agreed to urgently establish an Islamic state and to reject any foreign project." The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed, but the website it was released on carries al-Qaida and other militant statements.

The Syrian uprising started as peaceful protests in March 2011. It quickly morphed into a war that has deepened sectarian divisions in the country. Many of those trying to depose Assad are Sunni Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, followers of a Shiite offshoot sect.

Syria's political opposition has struggled to prove its relevance amid the civil war under a leadership largely made up of academics and exiled politicians. With its relaunch as a new organization earlier this month, it has taken a different tack by choosing Mouaz al-Khatib as its head. The 52-year-old cleric-turned-activist is respected by groups from across the political spectrum and has preached sectarian unity.

Speaking in in Cairo, where the 13-group alliance is now based, Al-Khatib told reporters that the Coalition will consider the concerns of Syrian factions who have not joined the new umbrella group.

"We will listen to our brothers who have not joined this alliance," al-Khatib said after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr. "We will keep in contact with them for more cooperation in the interest of the Syrian people," al-Khatib said.

So far, France has gone the furthest in recognizing the Coalition, declaring the Doha-formed alliance as the representative of the Syrian people and accepting one of its members as the group's ambassador to Paris on Saturday.

The United States and Italy have both recognized its status as a representative, but stopped short of conferring formal diplomatic recognition. Turkey last week recognized it as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

Many Syrians, particularly those in the capital Damascus where fighting and demonstrations have been relatively light, fear the involvement of Islamic extremists in the civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for a number of devastating bombings in the capital and other cities, targeting state security institutions and military intelligence branches there.

Also on Monday, a Kurdish group has clashed with rebel units in the city of Ras al-Ayn, a Turkish official said. The infighting among rebel units comes just days after opposition fighters ousted Assad's troops from the strategic city in northeastern al-Hasaka province along the border with Turkey.

At least 24 Syrians were injured in the clashes and were brought across the border into the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, according to an official in the Ceylanpinar mayor's office. The official said two of the injured men later died.

The official said the clashes erupted after a group of Kurds marched through Ras al-Ayn trying to hoist a flag of a Syrian Kurdish party.

He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to reporters without prior authorization.

An Associated Press video journalist in Ceylanpinar heard gunfire and occasional shelling coming from the oil-rich city that at is predominantly Kurdish.

While the Assad regime has been isolated internationally for cracking down on dissent, Iran, Russia and China have backed Damascus during the conflict.

Tehran has started building a $10 billion natural gas pipeline to Syria as part of efforts to boost Iran's energy sector that has been battered by international sanctions.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said on Monday that the 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) pipeline will pass through Iraq before reaching Syria.

Iran began construction of the first phase of the project involving a 225-kilometer (140-mile) stretch at an estimated cost of $3 billion. The Fars report said the entire project is to be completed in the second half of 2013. The deal was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria last July.


Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.