Syrian rebel command appears split by ouster of senior military leader

Bela Szandelszky/AP - Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July 2012, speaks during an interview in Antakya, Turkey, in December of that year.

BEIRUT — Several Syrian rebel commanders rallied behind the recently ousted leader of the military opposition Wednesday, throwing a leadership shake-up into further confusion as the United States and Arab nations consider additional arms deliveries to the opposition.

The breakaway faction of rebel leaders, including the official commanders for all five main battle fronts in Syria, appeared in a video alongside Gen. Salim Idriss, who until Sunday was the leader of the moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army. Idriss called for a complete restructuring of rebel forces.

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Idriss, formerly the United States’ point man for assistance to Syrian rebels, was replaced after a vote by the opposition’s 30-member, U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council. But 14 rebel leaders on Wednesday called the vote a “coup” and announced that they were breaking ties with the council.

The rebels’ backing of Idriss again highlighted the disarray of the Syrian opposition, which has long struggled to unite itself. Charles Lister, an analyst with the Brookings Doha Center, called the development “potentially very significant.”

Idriss “appears to enjoy the support of a wide range of senior commanders whose zones of command cross Syria,” Lister said. “Until the dust settles, this essentially leaves Syria with two military opposition councils.”

With peace talks aimed at finding a political resolution to the three-year conflict stalled, Saudi and U.S. intelligence representatives have met to discuss whether to supply more-advanced weaponry to rebels. But past promises of additional support have failed to materialize, and the opposition remains skeptical that new supplies will arrive.

On Sunday, several rebel commanders who were present at the council’s meeting said Idriss had been replaced at the insistence of opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, who has close ties to Saudi Arabia and wanted a more effective leader in place ahead of any arms supply.

Many of the commanders who appeared in the video on Wednesday have questionable influence on the ground, but the group included Bashar al-Zoubi, a powerful rebel leader in Syria’s south.

The rebels said Idriss’s ousting in favor of a little-known commander, Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, was engineered by Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Abboud, a commander who appeared in the video, said in an interview that he considered Idriss’s sacking illegal because the vote to remove him was taken without the required two-thirds of the council present.

“All the front commanders refuse this sacking and consider it a coup,” he said.

He accused Jarba, the head of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition, and Assad Mustafa, the defense minister in the opposition’s interim government, of forcing Idriss’s ouster at Saudi Arabia’s bidding.

Western and Arab governments have repeatedly attempted to strengthen the rebel command structure, which has been plagued by infighting from the outset.

Until late last year, Idriss’s chief role was to serve as the point man for deliveries of American non-lethal aid to the rebels, assistance including trucks, medical supplies and food. But the aid was suspended, and Idriss’s credibility diminished, after he lost control of the warehouses where supplies were stored, along with quantities of weapons and ammunition, to a rival, Islamist faction in December.

Abboud said that Idriss had done his best, given the “circumstances,” with little promised military assistance materializing.

The United States has since recovered all of its gear and announced that the suspension has been lifted. But U.S. officials say they had already decided not to use Idriss as a conduit for future deliveries of non-lethal aid. Deliveries are expected to resume soon, and they will go directly to individual commanders, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Liz Sly contributed from Gaziantep, Turkey.

 
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