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Syria rebel video claims new split in opposition

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.

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In the video, a rebel in fatigues read a statement with about two dozen fighters behind him.

Spokesman Louay Mikdad said 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 have failed to represent those trying to bring down Assad.

“We announce that we withdraw our recognition from any political group that claims to represent us, first among them the coalition and its leadership, which have relinquished the principles of the homeland and the revolution,” he said.

He named 66 groups that he said support his statement. The man suggested rebel groups would reorganize, saying that “we are unifying the forces of the revolution militarily and politically.”

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It could not be confirmed independently if all the groups named in the video support the statement. Noah Bonsey, a specialist 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.

Louay Mikdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman, said the video should be a wakeup call.

“We respect what they 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 Free Syrian Army’s commander, General Salim Idris, will try to speak to some of the groups named in the video.

Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of groups of fighters operate in Syria, often with local autonomy, and shifting alliances are common in the chaotic battlefield. Last month, nearly a dozen more powerful rebel factions broke with the coalition and called for Islamic law in the country, cementing a rift between rival camps.

Rebel groups with a strong Islamist orientation “appear to be aligning themselves politically, much more closely than they have,” 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 that broke away from the coalition in September, Lister said.

Mikdad said they include rebel groups from the southern Daraa provinces and areas around the capital, Damascus.

Southern Syria has been considered a stronghold of the moderate opposition, while Islamist extremists seem to be spreading in the north and east.

The latest apparent setback for the coalition comes when it is trying to decide whether to attend negotiations with the regime on a political transition.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that the United Nations, the United States, and Russia are intensifying efforts to start such talks in Geneva in mid-November.

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 visited 11 of more than 20 sites linked to the chemical weapons program.

The team destroyed critical equipment at six sites and unloaded chemical weapons munitions, the organization said.

The joint mission is to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, precursor chemicals, and production facilities by mid-2014.

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