BEIRUT – Several dozen rebel groups in southern Syria have broken with the main political opposition group in exile, a local commander said in a video posted Wednesday, dealing a potential new setback to Western efforts to unify moderates battling President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, the political arm of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, has long struggled to win respect and recognition from the fighters. It is widely seen as cut off from events on the ground and ineffective in funneling aid and weapons to the rebels.
In the video, a rebel in military fatigues read a statement with about two dozen fighters standing behind him, some holding a banner with FSA emblems.
FSA spokesman Louay Mikdad told The Associated Press that the video is authentic and identified the man speaking as a captain in one of the rebel groups, Anwar al-Sunna, which posted the video. The rebel in the video said political opposition leaders failed to represent those trying to bring down Assad.
“We announce that we withdraw our recognition from any political group that claims to represents us, first among them the Coalition and its leadership which have relinquished the principles of the homeland and the revolution,” he said.
The man suggested rebel groups would reorganize, saying that “we are unifying the forces of the revolution militarily and politically,” but did not explain further.
It could not be confirmed independently if all the groups named in the video support the statement. Noah Bonsey, an expert on Syrian rebels at the International Crisis Group think tank, said one of the larger groups named in the video did not post the statement on its Facebook page.
Nevertheless, Louay Mikdad, an FSA spokesman, said the video should serve as a wakeup call to the Coalition.
“We respect what they [the rebels] are saying,” he said. “We think our brothers in the Coalition ... should listen to the people inside and they should open a direct dialogue with them.”
He said the FSA commander, Gen. Salim Idris, would try to speak to some of the groups named in the video.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Hundreds of groups of fighters operate in Syria, often with considerable local autonomy, and shifting alliances are common in a chaotic battlefield. Last month, nearly a dozen of Syria’s more powerful rebel factions broke with the Coalition and called for Islamic law in the country, cementing the rift between rival camps.
Rebel groups with a strong Islamic orientation, from moderates to hardliners, “appear to be aligning themselves politically, much more closely than they have previously,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
The groups named Wednesday appear largely local and less influential than those which broke away from the Coalition in September, Lister said.
Mikdad said they include rebel groups from the southern Daraa provinces and the rural areas around the capital, Damascus.
Southern Syria has been considered a stronghold of the moderate opposition, while Islamic extremists, including those linked to al-Qaida, seem to be spreading their influence in the north and east.
The latest apparent setback for the Coalition comes at a time when it’s trying to decide whether to attend negotiations with the regime on a political transition.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that the U.N., the U.S. and Russia are “intensifying efforts” to start such talks in Geneva in mid-November.
The main faction in the Coalition has said it has no faith in such talks and won’t attend, though a final decision isn’t expected until next week.
Syrian opposition leaders are particularly upset about the international community’s decision to treat the Assad regime as a partner in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
The disarmament mission grew out of deadly Aug. 21 attacks with chemical weapons on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. The West holds the regime responsible, while the Assad regime blames the rebels.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday that its inspectors have so far visited 11 of more than 20 sites linked to the chemical weapons program.
The team destroyed “critical equipment” at six sites as well as unloaded chemical weapons munitions, said the OPCW.
A joint OPCW-U.N. mission is to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, precursor chemicals and production facilities by mid-2014.
Ban on Wednesday named a chief for the mission, appointing Sigrid Kaag, a Mideast expert and Arabic speaker from the Netherlands.
The team began operating in Syria at the beginning of October, and by last week, had visited two sites. Wednesday’s update signaled significant progress in the team’s work.
The inspectors are being asked to complete a first round of site visits by the end of October, including verifying inventory and rendering production, mixing and filling facilities unusable. The next phase, eliminating chemical agents, would begin after Nov. 1.
Experts say it’s a tight timetable, particularly with inspectors operating in the midst of a civil war. The head of the OPCW has said one site is in rebel-held territory and that routes to others run near areas of fighting.
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad that escalated into a civil war. The fighting has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced some 7 million people.