BEIRUT — Rebel commanders from across Syria have joined forces under a united command they hope will increase coordination between diverse fighting groups and streamline the pathway for arms essential to their struggle against President Bashar Assad.
While many of the brigades involved in the fighting are decidedly Islamist in outlook and some have boasted about executing captured soldiers, two of the most extreme groups fighting in Syria were not invited to the rebel meeting in Turkey or included in the new council — a move that could encourage Western support.
Disorganization has bedeviled Syria’s rebel movement since its birth late last year, when some protesters gave up on peaceful means to bring down Assad’s regime and took up arms, forming the base of what became the Free Syrian Army.
But the movement has never actually been an army. Scores of rebel groups battle Assad’s forces across the country, many coordinating with no one outside of their own area. While some say they want a civil, democratic government, others advocate an Islamic state.
The new body, expected to be announced officially on Sunday, hopes to form the basis of a united rebel front.
Some 500 delegates elected the 30-person Supreme Military Council and a Chief of Staff on Friday and planned to meet soon with representatives from the opposition’s newly reorganized political leadership, participants said.
“The aim of this meeting was to unify the armed opposition to bring down the regime,” said a rebel commander from near Damascus who attended the meeting. “It also aims to get the situation under control once the regime falls.”
The move toward greater unity on the armed front comes as the U.S. and others try to strengthen the opposition’s leadership while sidelining extremist factions that have become a vital part of the rebels’ ground forces.
The opposition’s political leadership reorganized last month, under Western pressure, into a new National Alliance that its backers hope will have broader representation and stronger links to rebel fighters.
Britain, France, Turkey and several Gulf Arab nations have recognized the National Alliance, effectively considering it a government in exile.
The U.S. is expected to recognize it at an international “Friends of Syria” conference in Marakesh, Morocco, that begins Wednesday.
It remains unclear how the new military command will relate to the National Alliance and whether foreign powers will back it.
But two of Syria’s most extreme rebel groups were not included: Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed deadly suicide bombings and is believed to be linked to al-Qaida, and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamic fundamentalist brigade home to many foreign jihadis.
U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.
Many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers. They include the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultraconservative Islamist group. Its leader, Ahmed Eissa al-Sheik, told The Associated Press earlier this year that his men had executed five captured government soldiers.