David Ignatius: In Syria, a revolt's extremist threat

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: October 9, 2012
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Leading the fight in Sakhour on the eastern side of this embattled city is the Tawafuk Battalion of the Free Syrian Army. It reports to a new coordinating body known as the Military Council, according to Mustafa Shabaan, the acting commander of Tawafuk.

But wait a minute: A young fighter tells me there are six or seven other battalions fighting in Sakhour, too, in what many claim is the decisive battle for Aleppo. Who commands these disparate fighters? And what about jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group that is said to have operatives here? Who directs them?

In this confusing scene, you can see the essence of the problem facing the Aleppo Military Council and others around the country as they try to coordinate the Free Syrian Army's insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad. The challenge of enforcing discipline at nearby Tariq al-Bab, the rebels' forward headquarters in eastern Aleppo, is multiplied a hundred times around the country.

The problem begins with the fact that this is an authentic, bottom-up revolution. It arose spontaneously in different parts of Syria, and every area has spun off its own battalions, many seeking funding from wealthy Arabs in the gulf. Unless these militia-like groups can be gathered around a single source for money and weapons, they're unlikely to mount a unified resistance to Assad.

A new effort to help bring better organization to this chaotic rebellion has been launched by a Syrian-American organization called the Syrian Support Group. One of its founders, Yakzan Shishakly, traveled to Syria in February to meet officers of the Free Syrian Army and encourage them to gather the freewheeling battalions into the military councils. Shishakly had credibility because his grandfather was a respected Syrian president in the 1950s.

By the summer, Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi emerged as the leader of the new military council in the Aleppo area; Col. Afif Suleiman headed a new council in Idlib province; Ahmed Berri commands the council in Hama. They say they'd like help from the United States, but that it hasn't materialized. Without money or weapons to distribute to the fighters, these U.S.-friendly military councils will quickly lose their coordinating power.

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