Key Syrian rebel groups rejected the authority of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) late Tuesday, undermining international efforts to establish a pro-Western military force capable of defeating President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
A joint statement issued by 13 rebel groups, including elements of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, slammed the SNC for no longer representing their interests.
"The National Coalition and the proposed government under (recently chosen leader) Ahmad Tomeh does not represent us, nor do we recognize it," the groups said in the statement.
Their announcement came almost two weeks after the Turkey-based SNC elected Tomeh as its interim prime minister, and amid reports of increased tensions and deadly clashes among rebel groups.
Among the signatories are the Islamist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham and Liwaa al-Islam brigades, both powerful rebel factions with large followings. Three of the groups -- Liwaa al-Tawheed, Liwaa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham – were, until now, members of the Free Syrian Army, which is considered to be the SNC’s military wing.
The statement said the rebels do "not recognize" any future government formed outside of Syria, insisting that forces fighting on the ground should be represented by "those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices."
Furthermore, the statement called on all those trying to topple Assad's government to unite within an Islamic framework.
"These forces call on all military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that ... is based on Sharia (Islamic) law, making it the sole source of legislation," read the statement, which also called to "reject division ... putting the interest of the (Islamic) nation over the interest of each group."
The move is a setback for foreign leaders trying to bolster more secular rebel groups and to reassure voters skeptical of deeper involvement in Syria's civil war.
Analyst Aron Lund wrote on the blog Syria Comment: "If the statement proves to accurately represent the groups mentioned and they do not immediately fall apart again, it is a very big deal. It represents the rebellion of a large part of the 'mainstream FSA' against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces."
Loay Safi, a spokesman for SNC President Ahmed Jarba, who was attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, said Jarba would head for Syria on Thursday to respond.
"We are not going to negotiate with individual groups. We are going to come up with a better structure for organizing the fighting forces," Safi said.
Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera that part of what the statement signals is "enormous rebel frustration" directed at Washington and the West. Joshi said it also indicates an objection to the U.S.-Russia deal, which designates a diplomatic path to disarming Syria of chemical weapons.
That deal has so far averted a military strike, which was initially sought by President Barack Obama to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that the U.S. said was perpetrated by his regime and killed more than 1,400 people.
Arms supplies promised to Syrian rebels by the U.S. earlier this year also "haven’t really materialized on the ground," further souring rebel forces, Joshi said.