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Syria rebel factions, including al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, reject authority of U.S.-backed opposition SNC

BEIRUT Several Syrian rebel groups, including a powerful al Qaeda-linked faction, said Wednesday they reject the authority of the Western-backed opposition coalition.

In a joint statement, 13 rebel groups led by the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front slammed the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, saying it no longer represents their interests.

The statement reflects the lack of unity between the political opposition, based in exile, and the disparate rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria's civil war, which has killed over 100,000 people so far. It also highlights the growing irrelevance of the Coalition and its military arm headed by Gen. Salim Idris, who heads the Supreme Military Council supported by the West, amid increasing radicalization on the ground in Syria.

Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition's Supreme Military Council, flanked by two of his subcommanders
Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition's Supreme Military Council, flanked by two of his subcommanders, speaks in a video uploaded to YouTube, Sept. 11, 2013. YouTube

The rebel groups' statement called on all those trying to topple Assad's government to unite under a "clear Islamic framework" - an apparent reference to the al-Qaeda faction's aspirations to create an Islamic state in Syria.

It said the rebels do "not recognize" any future government formed outside Syria, insisting that forces fighting on the ground should be represented by "those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices."

But the rebels themselves are also deeply divided, with many groups blaming jihadis and al Qaeda militants in their ranks for the West's reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or give them the advanced weapons they need. There is also growing concern that the dominant role the extremists are playing is discrediting the rebellion.

Yet the jihadis, including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda offshoot, have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army to capture military facilities, strategic installations and key neighborhoods in cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

Number of extremist rebels difficult to determine

The actual ratio of moderate western-friendly rebel fighters compared to the jihadis has been a point of sharp debate between the Syrian government and its key ally Russia, and the Obama administration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to call Secretary of State John Kerry a "liar" for suggesting that it was "basically incorrect" that al Qaeda was operating inside of Syria and that the opposition had actually "increasingly become more defined by its moderation."

According to the White House, between 15 and 25 percent of the rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad's government are likely jihadists.

The military and security consultancy IHS Jane's said earlier this month, however, that almost half of the rebels battling Assad's military are likely Islamic extremists.

Wednesday's rebel announcement, carried by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, came almost two weeks after the SNC, the main Western-backed opposition coalition, in Turkey elected Ahmad Saleh Touma as the opposition's interim prime minister.

Syrian rebels have been deeply divided and clashes between rival groups over the past months left hundreds of people dead, mostly in northern and eastern Syria. Al Qaeda gunmen have been on the offensive against members of the more mainstream Free Syrian Army, though some of the groups that signed on to Wednesday's statement also belong to the FSA umbrella.

Syria's conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian tones in the past year, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

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