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Middle East

United against a common enemy? Syria's breakaway factions

As the regime tightens its grip, rebel groups are locked in their own feuds

As the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime got under way, the political voice leading the dissent supposedly came from the Syrian National Council. But then came the National Co-ordination Committee with its own agenda. And last week saw the emergence of another breakaway faction, the Syrian Patriotic Group.

Relations between the military factions are equally fraught: first it was the Free Syria Army, with the Free Officers Movement in competition. Now the Syrian Liberation Army is declaring that its members are the ones doing the real fighting.

As Assad's vengeful forces sweep through centres of resistance and wreak retribution, Syria's opposition appears more fractured than ever.

With this disunity apparently holding up international recognition and the cash and weapons that come with it, representatives of the groups are meeting to fashion something resembling a common platform. But the confidential, low-profile discussions held in Amman, Paris and Brussels have themselves at times been beset by acrimony and recriminations.

"We have made a little progress, but there have also been disagreements," said Qais al-Baidi, one activist who has taken part. "It has sometimes been reduced to shouts about who betrayed whose father to whom in the regime. The people on the ground are being tortured and massacred, it is urgent that the leadership outside the country organise themselves properly."

The most glaring division is between the leadership of the civilian wing of the revolution and the rebel fighters. The Syrian National Council (SNC) in particular has been repeatedly charged with turning into a cosy club of people staying outside Syria who are averse to danger and swan around various international conferences paid for by the Qataris and the Saudis.

Abu Bakr, the nom de guerre of an activist from Homs, explained why the latest splinter group, which includes 20 former leading figures of the SNC, came into being. "The Syrian Patriotic Group was formed because the Syrian National Council do not represent the people in the street. We hope that they will learn to work together for the revolution, not work behind it the way they do now. We have had too many words, very little action."

One of the main points of contention has been who would control the weapons coming from outside the country. The SNC leader, Burhan Ghalioun, recently announced the setting up of a Military Council, which he said had been approved by the armed factions. "We will be like a defence ministry," he said. "We will look at the military needs of each force and supply them with what is needed."

But this has been contradicted by the head of the Free Syria Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Assad, who claims he has not been consulted.

"I really don't know the objective of this body," he said. "They say it is the Military Council, but the military men are not properly asked about their views. Our talks with the SNC on this have not been satisfactory."

But some rebel factions are themselves dissatisfied with the FSA. Mohammed Mifsud Abdullah, an officer with the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA), who has been fighting in Idlib, a city in northern Syria, expressed this view: "Our area has received the most government attacks after Homs. So where were the FSA? We are protecting the people here and we certainly do not recognise the FSA as being over us. There are lots of organisations outside the country who say they represent the people. But what are they doing?"

Kamal al-Labwani, one of those who left to form the Syrian Patriotic Group, emphasised that the new organisation did not want a confrontation with the SNC. But he added: "We cannot have the constant infighting which has gone on. Also, we believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has too powerful a role [in the SNC]. It is important that all opinion is heard."

Another high-level defector from the SNC is Haitham al-Maleh, a lawyer and former judge who has been repeatedly jailed by the regime.

"A lot of people need to send weapons to the Free Syrian Army, maybe from Jordan, from Lebanon, from Turkey; a lot of people know they can take the weapons through the border," he said. "We need to support the Free Syrian Army by medium weapons, because we cannot bring tanks, or helicopter or something like this; with medium weapons they can finish this regime."

Travelling with rebel fighters inside Idlib province in northern Syria, The Independent witnessed how much they indeed lacked in terms of modern weapons. One group of around 50 fighters was armed with old hunting rifles and shotguns. A Kalashnikov AK-47 which they acquired one day was regime issue – not captured, but purchased from a member of the Shabiha, the Alawite militia fighting for the regime, for about £1,300.

But even with "medium weapons" it is highly unlikely that the rebels will be able to fulfil Mr al-Maleh's expectation of finishing the regime, at least in the short term. The main reason is that none of the various forces – the FSA, the Free Officers Movement or the SLA – have a recognisable command and control structure. Instead, they consist of autonomous groups with little co-ordination between them.

The groups operating in Idlib province alone include the Martyr Hisham Brigade; the Ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade; the Maarratt al-Numan Martyrs Brigade; the Salhauddin [Saladin] Brigade and the Fallujah Brigade.

Ayham al-Kurdy, a captain with the FSA, insisted that such a variety of splinter groups did not mean that the rebel group was dysfunctional: "We have new brigades all the time. They are named after famous people: if we were American, we would have a Michael Jackson Brigade."

Hanging over the revolution is the dark cloud of sectarianism. There are no Alawites, the community from which Assad and the country's elite are drawn, in prominent positions in the SNC. Some of the rebel "brigades" openly espouse hardline Sunni and anti-Shia sentiments. The Alawites are a Shia offshoot. Three bombings, in Damascus and Aleppo, are widely suspected to have been the work of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, which in the past waged a virulent religious war.

Hania, from an Alawite family in exile opposed to Assad, does not want her full name made public. She is apprehensive about the future: "Of course the regime is exploiting the divisions. They say that if the revolution succeeds then the minorities will suffer. But my relations have heard marchers shout 'Christians to Beirut, Alawites to graves'. So yes, there is a worry, a big worry."

The religious strife triggered by the Syrian revolution is not confined to the country. Shia Iran, according to American officials, is stepping up its support for the Assad regime with arms and technical assistance. The same sources claim that the head of the al-Quds unit of the Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, has visited Damascus from Tehran.

Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, whose foreign minister held that it would be an "excellent idea" to arm the Syrian rebels, have yet to send significant amounts of weaponry. This is partly because Turkey and Lebanon, the states which would act as conduits, have so far refused permission. Another reason is the divided nature of the opposition to Assad.

The rebels do have some money for arms, either raised locally or brought in from abroad. But supply remains a problem. Last week Izzadine Hihano, a rebel commander fighting in Idlib, slipped across the border into the Turkish city of Antakaya to buy ammunition. All he could find available was around 300 bullets.

"How long would that last?" he exclaimed in frustration. "Some of the other groups have more money and so they are getting weapons by paying higher prices. But they are also extremists. In our brigade one of the most senior officers is a Christian, and we have Alawites helping us across the border. But if we don't get help it is the extremists who will succeed."