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Syrian Rebel Groups Form New Islamic Front, Challenge Moderate Rebel Leadership

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WASHINGTON -- After weeks of battlefield setbacks and the deaths of prominent commanders, a group of Syria's most prominent rebel factions sought to reinvigorate its campaign to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, on Friday announcing a new unified coalition.

The newly formed Islamic Front is the product of the second round of consolidation among major rebel groups in recent months. In September, 13 leading rebel units announced a coalition that rejected the authority of the Supreme Military Council, the Western-backed group that nominally commands Syrian rebel forces. The September grouping was made up of prominent Islamist units, and included the Nusra Front, which claims to represent al-Qaeda in Syria.

Friday's formation of the Islamic Front appears to present a more fundamental shake-up. On the Facebook page of the Tawhid Brigade -- a leading Islamist unit that was also a member of the September coalition -- spokesman Abu Firas called the move "the complete merger of the major military factions fighting in Syria." Al Jazeera's Basma Atassi reported that the group would no longer even use its former name, but would dissolve completely into a unified Islamist front.

In a joint statement posted on Facebook, the groups called the Islamic Front "an independent military and social force that is aimed at bringing down Assad's regime in Syria and at replacing it with a just Islamic state."

For months, experts have recognized a strengthening of Assad’s resolve in holding on to power while the rebels battling to end his rule have become increasingly dominated by Islamist groups. This shift has amplified the reluctance of the Obama administration and other Western governments to arm the rebels. Friday’s announcement appears to strengthen the collective force of the rebel groups, while also reinforcing the power of the Islamists, making it even less likely that Western countries will add military support.

Charles Lister, a prominent Syria analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, told The Independent that the formation of the Islamic Front would be a "landmark moment for the revolution" and predicted a renewed surge of rebel activity.

While the merger will unite six of the most important Islamist units, the Islamic Front will not contain al-Qaeda-linked groups like the Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the notoriously extremist militia made up mostly of foreign fighters. It will consist of Aleppo's Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, the Army of Islam, Liwa al-Haq and the Ansar al-Sham battalions.

"The main losers are likely to be the currently recognized leaders of the opposition -- the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the allied Higher Military Council of the Free Syrian Army," Yezid Sayigh, an expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in a post for the center.

Those groups were supported by Western countries but enjoyed little credibility among fighters on the ground. Sayigh argued that the Islamic Front is likely an attempt by Saudi Arabia to form a unified and credible rebel army that can overthrow Assad on the battlefield.

Saudi Arabia has long supplied money and weapons to rebel groups, and the Syrian government claimed that the desert kingdom was responsible for the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut on Tuesday. Following the attack, the Saudi Arabian government urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

In comparison to the Saudi effort, the United States and other Western countries have provided little in the way of weapons or cash assistance to moderate rebel forces. The new Islamic Front appears to place Western-backed groups even further in the shadows, and could potentially mean the end of attempts to use moderate leadership to negotiate an end to the civil war.

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