BEIRUT — A mild-mannered Syrian general who taught at a military academy before he defected last year is poised to play a key role in shaping the outcome of Syria’s war now that the United States has said it will provide direct military assistance to the rebels.
Gen. Salim Idriss, 56, heads the Supreme Military Council of the fragmented Free Syrian Army, and the Obama administration has anointed him as the sole conduit of weapons to the rebels, whether supplied by the United States or by allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have already been sending arms.
The United States still has not committed to providing any weaponry, Idriss said Sunday in a phone interview from the Turkish capital, Ankara, after two days of talks with U.S. officials over what form the unspecified military assistance announced last week would take.
He urged the United States to move swiftly on the arms deliveries before opposition fighters suffer further setbacks on the battlefield.
“We need help. I can tell you very clearly, very urgently, we need it as soon as possible,” he said in the interview before heading back to his headquarters in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Recent advances by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been facilitated by his allies Iran and Russia, which are providing vast quantities of arms and ammunition to prop up Syrian government forces, Idriss said. Fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement are bolstering the ranks of Assad’s conventional army, which is weary from more than two years of battling the rebellion.
“We need to make a balance, and we need the help of our friends,” Idriss said. “The regime is supported by its friends, but our friends have been waiting. It makes the situation very difficult.”
U.S. officials have not spelled out how far the Obama administration is prepared to go in aiding the rebels. But Washington’s policy reversal is resonating across a region that had grown accustomed to the idea that the United States would not intervene in the conflict.
In comments carried by state media, the Assad government on Sunday attacked as “irresponsible” a decision by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to sever diplomatic relations with Syria; Morsi also called Saturday for the institution of a no-fly zone. Jordan’s King Abdullah II promised “necessary measures to protect our country and people’s interests” after the Pentagon announced that the U.S. military would leave behind a squadron of F-16 fighter jets and a battery of Patriot missiles after military exercises in the kingdom conclude this week, stirring speculation that a no-fly zone is being prepared.
Idriss said the U.S. officials he met with told him that a no-fly zone would be “very difficult” and indicated that they were not prepared to contemplate imposing one. He said he also gave them a list of items the rebels need, including ammunition and guns, as well as the antitank and antiaircraft weapons that opposition fighters have long sought to defeat the Syrian government’s superior forces.
A threatened regime offensive against opposition-held portions of the northern city of Aleppo has spurred concerns that the outgunned rebels could be on the brink of further defeats, after the capture of the strategically significant town of Qusair in Homs province this month.
Just as significantly, U.S. officials hope that channeling weapons through the Idriss-led council also will help reverse the accelerating influence of anti-Assad Islamist extremists, who have benefited from private donations by wealthy Arabs in return for a commitment to Islamist goals.
As a moderate who received his military training in what was then East Germany and who speaks English, German and Arabic, Idriss has won the trust of the West since being appointed head of the rebel military council in December. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with him during a brief foray into Syria last month and said in a statement, “General Idriss and his fighters share many of our interests and values.”
Idriss said that 80,000 rebels answer to his command and that he had given assurances to U.S. officials that any American aid channeled through him would not find its way to extremists.
“There is no danger the weapons we may receive from our friends will go to the wrong groups,” he said.
However, there are questions about how much real authority Idriss wields over the chaotic rebel force, which consists of hundreds of loosely organized fighting units that answer to no one other than their local commanders.
Idriss was selected to lead the Supreme Military Council “in part due to his ability to serve as a ‘diplomat’ for the council . . . and for his personal relationships to foreign officials,” wrote Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War in a March report. “He was not chosen because of his command of significant ground forces or operational effectiveness.”
That could change if sufficient quantities of weapons and funds are channeled his way, according to Idriss. “It is very simple,” he said. “Just help us and we can end this very quickly. Just give us weapons and we will take care of everything.”