Syrian Rebel Groups Appeal For Regional Alliance to Fight Russia and Iran

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Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement rebel fighters ride on the back of a pick-up truck in the northwestern city of Idlib March 26, 2015. Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Forty-one Syrian rebel groups have appealed to regional states to form a coalition against Russia and Iran, following their intervention in the country and continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, according to a joint statement released on Monday seen by Reuters.

Last week, Russia began an airstrike campaign in Syria, supposedly targeting the militant group ISIS in the country. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted on Thursday that Moscow was also targeting other "well-known groups" considered to be legitimate targets by the Assad regime. Lebanese sources told Reuters on Friday that hundreds of Shiite Iranian troops had also arrived in Syria to assist the Syrian army in its battle against insurgent groups.

The collective of rebel factions party to the joint statement include the umbrella group of the Free Syrian Army (which is backed by the United States), the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham (The Free Men of Syria) group and the Jaish al-Islam group that is part of the wider Islamic Front coalition fighting the Assad regime. The dozens of other rebel groups to sign the statement, which was sent to Reuters by Ahrar al-Sham, are yet to be disclosed.

The U.S. does not currently list Ahrar al-Sham or Jaish al-Islam as terrorist organizations. Radical jihadi groups the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been fighting the rebel groups in northern Syria, and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Frontboth designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S.were not party to the statement. Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front are both members of the coalition that captured Idlib province from the Syrian army last month.

The militants said that regional cooperation was required to defeat "the Russian-Iranian alliance occupying Syria" but did not name the states that it wished to join such a coalition. The rebel groups also condemned Russian airstrikes they say have targeted civilians in north-western Syria.

"Russia jumped in to rescue the Assad regime after it was clinically dead, in order to prevent it from suffering a sweeping defeat," the statement said, according to regional publication Middle East Eye.

"Civilians have been directly targeted in a manner that reminds us of the scorched earth policy pursued by Russia in its past wars," it continued.

The groups added that Russia's intervention and "brutal occupation has cut the road to any political solution."

"This new reality makes it imperative that regional countries, and allies in particular, hasten to form a regional alliance in the face of the Russian-Iranian alliance of occupation."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin cups his ear to listen to a question as he departs after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Iran has long been a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, providing him with weapons and financial support against the rebel groups. It has also sent military advisers to train the Syrian army and hundreds of Iranian troops to fight alongside Assad's forces. Tehran uses its support of the Assad regime and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to boost its influence in the Levant region, serving as a bulwark to the regional influence of its Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.

Despite the rebel groups not naming who they wish to join an alliance against Iran and Russia, a number of Sunni states have supported Syrian rebel groups during the fight to topple Assad throughout the Syrian civil war, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as individual financiers from Kuwait. Rebels and anonymous officials told The Independent in May that Saudi Arabia was providing arms and funds to Islamist rebel groups in Syria with Turkey easing their passage to the insurgents.

Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, has also reignited the ire of other Sunni Islamist groups. Despite not signing the joint statement, the Nusra Front, one of the biggest jihadi groups in Syria, compared Russia's involvement to when Islamists battled Soviet occupying forces during the Afghanistan War in the 1980s.

A prominent jihadi cleric linked to the Nusra Front recalled Russia's war in Afghanistan on Friday, warning that Syria will become a "graveyard for invaders," the Associated Press reported.

"Oh Russian people, did you forget the Afghan quagmire? Do you want to enter a new quagmire? The people of the Levant will stand up to you," Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi militant based in Syria, said in a video statement.

On Thursday, Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, another influential figure within the group, issued a bounty worth three million Syrian pounds ($15,900) for the capture of a Russian soldier in the country.