Syrian Opposition Group’s Dire Warning: Al Qaeda-Linked Rebel Fighters Are ‘Strengthening Their Positions’

BEIRUT (TheBlaze/AP) — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group has slammed Al Qaeda-linked gunmen and their expanding influence in the country, saying the jihadis seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

A statement on Friday from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) follows days of vicious infighting in which the extremists seized control of the northern town of Azaz from mainstream opposition fighters.

The SNC says the actions of the al-Qaida-linked fighters “counter the principals that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve.”

Smoke rises after a TNT bomb was thrown from a helicopter, hitting a rebel position during heavy fighting between troops loyal to president Bashar Assad and opposition fighters, in a neighbouring village to Kafr Nabuda, in the Idlib province countryside, Syria, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Credit: AP

The group also warns that the Islamic fighters are “strengthening their positions” in opposition-controlled areas.

The infighting threatens to further split opposition forces outgunned by President Bashar Assad’s troops and strengthen his hand as he engages with world powers on relinquishing his chemical weapons.

The coalition’s statement comes after much debate has surrounded just how many rebels embrace extremist ideology. This week, in an interview with Fox News, Assad charged that it was extremists and not his own government that used deadly weapons.

He contended that opposition forces, which have undoubtedly been joined by extremist jihadists, could have gained access to sarin.

“Sarin gas is called kitchen gas,” he said. “You know why? Because anybody can make sarin in his house. Any rebel can make sarin. Second, we know that all the rebels are supported by governments. So any government that would have such chemical can hand it over.”

Assad charged that the balance of opposition forces has shifted during the more than two-year conflict, and he alleged that 80 to 90 percent were members of al-Qaida or its affiliates.

U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry, though, recently attempted to frame the majority of rebel fighters as moderates.

“I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists,” he recently proclaimed. “Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

Secretary of State John Kerry talks about Syria and chemical weapons ahead of next week’s United Nations General Assembly at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Kerry says the U.N. General Assembly needs to move swiftly to approve a U.S.-Russia deal to eliminate Syria s chemical weapons, saying that there is no time to argue with those who aren t convinced that Syrian President Bashar Assad s regime carried out the Aug. 21 attack that killed hundreds. Credit: AP

But Assad paints a more complicated picture.

“At the very beginning, the jihadists were the minority. At the end of 2012 and during this year, they became the majority with the flow of tens of thousands from additional countries,” he said adding that they were being financed by individuals who shared their extremist ideologies.

The new statement from SNC will only add to concerns about rebel groups and their potential attachment to extremist ideologies. At the least, there’s clearly a power struggle unfolding among the rebels.