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Thursday, October 20, 2016

By Roy Gutman and Hannah Allam, McClatchy Foreign Bureau

REYHANLI, Turkey — Caught off guard by the abrupt dismissal of the U.S. point man for moderate Syrian rebels, the Obama administration is now searching for new clients to aid in an insurgency that’s dominated by Islamist factions, including groups with connections to al-Qaida.

The downfall of Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel leader the State Department once described as “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” leaves the United States once again with no clear partner in the nearly three-year-old civil war.

The rebel vote to oust Idriss, taken Sunday at a meeting of the 30-member Supreme Military Council, was mostly a formality; he’d lost any real authority in December, when Islamist fighters seized SMC warehouses across the border from this Turkish city.

The United States immediately suspended millions of dollars in nonlethal aid then and still hasn’t identified a replacement partner who shares the American vision of a moderate, democratic Syria to replace the regime of President Bashar Assad. The SMC, meanwhile, is struggling to reconstitute itself, and it’s unclear whether its new commander, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, a field commander, shares the U.S. view of Syria’s future.

Al-Bashir reportedly once led Syria’s army in the south before he defected. He now heads the rebel military council in Quneitra province in southwestern Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. According to a Facebook memorial, his son Talal was killed in fighting last year.

Dan Layman, the spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S.-based rebel fundraising group, said al-Bashir’s selection was a surprise. Unlike other rebel commanders, he is not well known in international circles, Layman said.

That would make him a very different kind of partner from Idriss, who took his post to great fanfare from the Western and Persian Gulf nations backing the anti-Assad rebellion. An East German trained engineering professor, Idriss used his English and connections to press his Western allies for “game-changing weapons” to fight the regime. Secretary of State John Kerry was personally impressed with Idriss, a spokeswoman told reporters last year.

Now, American officials are starting from scratch.

“It flipped our whole program on its head because Idriss had been the U.S. client,” Layman, whose group has facilitated the transfer of $15 million in U.S. government funding to the SMC, said of al-Bashir’s appointment.

Publicly, Obama administration officials still profess support for the SMC, though no longer with the confidence of just a few months ago. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, worded it carefully Monday: “We continue to see the SMC as an effective advocate for the armed opposition.” The official wouldn’t elaborate or speak to whether the United States would use the group as a conduit for future aid shipments once the suspension is lifted; $56 million in nonlethal aid is said to be on hold.

Privately, however, officials acknowledge that the SMC’s future is shaky at best and so they’re evaluating a new crop of potential battlefield partners. They even hadn’t excluded the Islamic Front, a powerhouse rebel coalition whose fighters range from conservative Islamists to extremists with ties to the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate and U.S.-designated terrorist group.

“The State Department is going about this very pragmatically,” Layman said. “They’re not discounting any group, including the Islamic Front. It’s not the time to make enemies.”