Syrian Islamist Groups Unify in Rebellion

BEIRUT (AP) -

Powerful Syrian Islamic rebel brigades announced Friday their merger into a single organization, a step meant to hold off surging government forces and stop rival groups from seizing more opposition-held territory.

The “Islamic Front” unites rebel groups who want to transform Syria into an Islamic state after they overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad, the groups said in a joint statement. But the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front is holding off from joining them, saying they want the other groups to join their banner.

The merger of the Islamic groups also is meant to stave off challenges from the al-Qaida 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.

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

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

Lister estimated the merged group has a fighting force of at least 45,000.

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 area north of Damascus that is crucial for rebels to maintain smuggling routes to opposition-held areas south of Damascus and to the central city of Homs.

Since fighting there began last week, Assad’s forces seized the town of Qara and rebels seized the nearby town of Deir Attiyeh, severing the key Damascus-Homs highway that runs through the town. Al-Qaida rebels dominated the fighting, using waves of suicide car bombers. Syria’s conflict, now into its third year, has killed some 120,000 people.