BEIRUT, Dec 12: Syria’s Western-backed rebels were in disarray on Thursday after Washington and London suspended non-lethal aid following the loss of a key border crossing and arms depots to a powerful Islamist alliance.

The rebels’ decline comes ahead of January peace talks that ascendant Islamist rebel groups have rejected, raising concerns that even if the opposition struck a deal with the regime it would be unable to deliver. The talks, dubbed Geneva 2 after a previous meeting in 2012, will be held in the Swiss city of Montreux with an estimated 30 countries invited, including key regime all Iran and Saudi Arabia, a backer of the rebels, said.

The January 22 conference is aimed at ending the nearly three-year civil war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives and displaced millions, including thousands now in tent camps blanketed with snow.

But no armed rebel groups have said they will join the talks, and Islamist groups have warned that anyone attending will be considered a “traitor”.

The Islamic Front, a powerful alliance formed last month, is now the largest rebel force, with tens of thousands of fighters. The alliance does not include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Al-Nusra Front, two hardline Al Qaeda affiliates.

But last week it withdrew from the FSA’s Supreme Military Council headed by General Selim Idriss, and over the past week it has seized the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border and arms warehouses from his forces.

The seizure prompted the United States and Britain to suspend non-lethal aid to the FSA, dealing a major blow to a group that appears caught between advancing regime forces and the increasingly unified Islamists.

“While there is definitely a case of Syria’s Islamists getting stronger, it is also clear that the Supreme Military Council (SMC) is growing weaker, that it has lost power,” said Aron Lund, a Sweden-based expert on Syria’s insurgency.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Idriss fled to Turkey and then Qatar after the border seizure, but a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition denied this, saying he was meeting with FSA and Islamic Front rebels in southern Turkey.—AFP



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