The United States and its allies took important new steps last weekend at a meeting in Istanbul to bolster the command and control of the moderate Syrian opposition. Now it’s up to Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the Free Syrian Army umbrella group that’s receiving the aid, to show that he can use it effectively.
Syrian sources say that the new aid package totals about $500 million, including an extra $120 from the United States for armor, night-vision and other “non-lethal” but militarily essential equipment. The United Kingdom is said to be providing other high-tech gear, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar have for months been supplying weapons.
A key part of the new package is $2.5 million a month for Idriss to train and pay elite forces that can fight better on the battlefield, and also work securing chemical weapons and intelligence operations. The idea is that these well-trained, well-armed forces under Idriss’s command will provide a nucleus of disciplined fighters that can draw the rebels away from the freewheeling Islamist groups that have done much of the fighting.
The question is whether the Free Syrian Army and its command network, known as the “supreme military council,” can become something closer to real army, rather than a force that exists mainly on paper. Idriss is a smart, German-educated engineer who was a professor at a military college in Aleppo and defected to the rebels in July 2012.
Idriss’s backers say his authority as chief of staff was established by an intense three-day meeting in December that was attended by more than 260 rebel commanders from across Syria.
He has won support in the west by calling for a military transition government that includes reconcilable elements of the Syrian army and civil service and security guarantees for the Alawite and Christian minorities that have mostly been backing Assad.
Rebel sources say that for Idriss to establish his chain of command, he must integrate the big brigades that have been fighting more or less independently, with financial aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. These big fighting brigades include the Shoukour Al-Sham, Ahrar Al-Sham, Tawhid brigade and Liwa Al-Islam. These militia-like units have had individual success on the battlefield, but though they are nominally under the Free Syrian Army umbrella, they haven’t formed a unified army that will take orders from Idriss and his military councils, rather than follow the dictates of their local leaders.
Idriss’s chances of unifying the opposition will be much greater if the United States and its allies can deliver on their promise to coordinate all funding of the opposition through Idriss and his supreme military council. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged to join the United States and Europe in this push for coordination, but it remains to be seen whether the United States can bring along Turkey and Qatar, which, over the past year, have often talked of unity but continued to support Islamist groups that can advance their agenda.
Bolstering Idriss is an urgent priority in part because of the recent growth of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, which has done some of the toughest fighting against Assad’s forces and had gained a corresponding mystique. According to one Arab intelligence source, the al-Nusra front now has about 12,000 fighters, roughly double its total a few months ago. Of these, as many as 1,000 are said to have been recruited from Muslim communities in Europe.
Idriss has an opportunity to showcase his leadership by reversing some recent gains Assad’s forces have made on the battlefield. The regime’s army has been pushing back the rebels on major command routes, re-opening connections east of Damascus between the suburbs of Deraya and Goutha toward the southern city of Dera’a. And in northwest Syria, the regime won a big battle at Wadi al-Dayf in Idlib province, which commands the passage toward the Alawite heartland in Latakia. These reversals for the rebels illustrate the need for better command-and-control among, and for a strong operations center that would allow Idriss and his commanders to organize and direct the fight.
Among the opposition, there’s an expectation now that although the United States and NATO won’t provide a formal no-fly zone to protect the liberated areas in the northwest, northeast and south of Syria, the rebels may obtain much more modern anti-aircraft weapons that can shoot down Syrian jets and helicopters. How these weapons will be brought into the battlefield safely, protected from al-Nusra and the other Islamists, is not clear. There is talk that they might be brought in by Arab forces allied with the United States, or by contractors working for one of the countries backing the opposition.
Given the recent gains by Assad’s forces, rebel sources concede that the timetable for victory — which they hoped might come as soon as June — is stretching further into the future. For Idriss, that may have some benefits, allowing time to regroup and consolidate forces under stronger leadership. He now has the money and support he has wanted, and chance to show that his Free Syrian Army command is for real.
Summing up the Istanbul meeting, a Syrian rebel source close to Idriss said Monday: “Weapons, ammunition and money are the three keys to better integration. Everything else is secondary. So the U.S. and Europe have to step it up and deliver those three items if they hope to give Idriss the tools he needs to be successful.”