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Syrian rebel leader admits difficulty of unifying fighters

  • McClatchy Foreign Staff
  • Published Saturday, May 18, 2013, at 10:26 p.m.

— The defected Syrian general whom the United States has tapped as its conduit for aid to the rebels has acknowledged in an interview with McClatchy that his movement is badly fragmented and lacks the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar Assad.

Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads what’s known as the Supreme Military Command, also admitted that he faces difficulty in creating a chain of command in Syria’s highly localized rebellion, a shortcoming he blamed on the presence within the rebel movement of large numbers of civilians without military experience.

“It is difficult to unify the (rebels) because they are civilians and only a few of them had military service,” Idriss said.

Idriss has become the key man in the international coalition that’s battling to end the Assad regime. The United States announced in April that it would funnel $123 million in nonlethal aid through his group, an operation that’s already begun. At the same time, U.S. allies, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, agreed at a meeting in Istanbul that all lethal aid destined for the rebels would pass first to Idriss.

But whether Idriss and his Supreme Military Command can become a functioning military force remains a huge question. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was confident of Idriss’ ability to deliver a coherent rebel strategy while keeping weapons away from al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups, there’s been little evidence that that’s the case.

Shortly before Idriss was declared the conduit for all rebel assistance, Assad loyalists broke the siege of a key government base that rebels had been pressing for months. Fighters in that siege blame a lack of cooperation and ammunition for their failure, an assessment with which Idriss agrees.

With the Assad government pushing to take back ground lost to rebels in the past year — March and April were the bloodiest months of the 2-year-old war — building a rebel force that isn’t dependent on the Islamist forces that have been leading rebel successes takes on increasing significance.

Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure with sub-councils in each of the 14 provinces, but that a lack of material support was hampering that effort.

“We don’t have sufficient ammunition and weapons,” Idriss said. “We don’t have enough money for logistics, for fuel for the cars, for cars for the units. We can’t pay salaries.”

He acknowledged that he has little influence over what the rebels do in Syria and no direct authority over some of the largest factions, including the Farouq Brigade, whose forces control key parts of the countryside from Homs to the Turkish border.

Asked to delineate which battles his group had been active in coordinating, he spoke of fights in the northern and central parts of the country, including the siege of air bases near Aleppo and a recently launched operation around the city of Hama.

Idriss also took credit for fighting government troops backed by the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah along Syria’s border with Lebanon, a battle his forces appear to be losing, though he said he considered the operation successful because his forces so far had prevented Hezbollah from retaking Qusayr, a key city that connects the capital of Damascus to Homs, the country’s third largest city, which is also a major conduit for rebel supplies coming from Lebanon.

Idriss said his group didn’t work with al-Qaida-affiliated rebels who belonged to the Nusra Front. But he said the military councils worked closely with another Islamist rebel faction, Ahrar al-Sham, that’s known to coordinate its actions with Nusra and shares many of Nusra’s beliefs about how Syria should be governed if Assad is vanquished.

Overall, Idriss’ assessment of the rebel movement suggests that it’s still in its infancy, far from a military force that could topple the government soon. He spoke of a need to combine small units into larger ones, to build a force that can take control of vast cities such as Damascus.

“The battles are not so simple now,” he said. “At the beginning of the revolution, they had to fight against a checkpoint. They had to fight against a small group of the army. Now they have to liberate an air base. Now they have to liberate a military school. Small units can’t do that alone, and now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult.”

Compared with Syria’s hard-bitten rural and often religious rebels, the clean-cut, English-speaking Idriss seems a rather unlikely leader.

Though a general in the military, he was teaching at a military college in Aleppo when he defected last July, and he said he’d like to return to teaching when the war ends.

On the recent Friday that he sat down for an interview in southern Turkey, a reporter picked him up at his offices and drove him to a restaurant. He was accompanied by no aides or security forces, despite the fact that Syrian government loyalists have attacked and kidnapped opposition figures based in the area.

Unlike other defected officers who have previously laid claim to rebel leadership, Idriss spends most of his time in Syria. Rebel commanders in Syria who have pledged to work with him say they have yet to see benefits beyond nonlethal aid.

On Monday in Heesh, an empty and badly damaged city in northern Syria where the government recently broke the months-long siege of Wadi al-Deif, a strategic army base on the country’s main north-south highway, the dynamics Idriss described were on display, as well as the aid the U.S has provided thus far: communications equipment, food and body armor. As the crash of an incoming artillery shell split the air, rebels asked whether such support was a joke.

“We need weapons,” said Hajj Saleh, a former primary school teacher who’s in command of the rebels in Heesh. “The Americans just want us to die slowly.”

Idriss himself was more diplomatic.

The Americans “say we need to know if you are an organization and you can distribute and handle support and if you can keep order in the country when the regime falls and you can protect the minorities,” Idriss said, referring to fears that the rebels, who virtually all hail from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, would take revenge against minorities in the country, particularly Alawites, who practice a religion related to Shiite Islam and make up about 10 percent of the Syria’s population. Under Assad, an Alawite, Sunnis have complained of discrimination.

Idriss, however, plays down the importance of Sunni extremists such as Nusra within the rebel movement, saying most Syrians aren’t comfortable with them.

“We in Syria are not extremists, and we don’t like to see any kind of extremism in our country, now and in the future. And when someone comes to us to say ‘we don’t accept minorities,’ we don’t agree with this idea,” he said.

Splits also have emerged among the rebels who don’t claim to be part of the military council, and a number seem to be hedging their bets. Ahrar al-Sham, a network of fighters that has battalions across most of the country, is an affiliate of both Idriss’ council and the Syrian Islamic Front, a collection of similarly minded groups. Like Nusra, Sham calls for an Islamic state, but the group’s leadership has roundly rejected Nusra’s allegiance to al-Qaida.

Idriss made a distinction between Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra when he discussed how much of the country his forces control.

“We in the Free Syrian Army don’t see any difference between the Free Syrian Army and the groups that are working under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army,” Idriss said, using the name many of the rebels employ to refer to themselves. “When Nusra is in control of an area, we don’t say it is under our control. But when Ahrar al-Sham is in control of an area, we say it is under our control.”

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