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.”
After Islamist fighters seized their warehouses in December, SMC brigades fragmented, with some becoming freestanding militias, some answering to local military councils, and others joining newly formed, relatively moderate coalitions such as Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or the Syrian Revolutionary Front.
Layman said the Syrian Support Group launched an in-depth assessment of the potential new clients and recommended to U.S. officials the Syrian Revolutionary Front, a former SMC affiliate whose fighters have received U.S. funding in the past. Layman said the group’s leaders espouse moderate views despite being patrons of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist group. Another benefit is that the group’s leader enjoys good relations with the Islamic Front, which controls border crossings that are essential to the delivery of U.S. supplies.
“You can support these guys or the individual brigades that were part of the SMC but are now acting on their own volition,” Layman said, describing the Syrian Support Group’s recommendations to U.S. contacts. “Those are the only two options.”
With Islamists leading the insurgency, the more moderate rebel brigades are at a crossroads. They regained some credibility in January when they launched an operation that ousted extremists of the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from many of their bases along the Turkish border.
The commander who launched the offensive, Jamal Maarouf, was brought into the consultations on replacing Idriss, participants said. But whether al-Bashir, who reportedly commanded Syria’s army in the south before defecting to the rebel cause, will prove amenable to U.S. concepts of democratic rule in a post-Assad Syria was not immediately known.
The vote to dismiss Idriss was preceded by another drama as the defense minister of the government-in-waiting organized by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Asad Moustafa, resigned Friday, apparently after the SMC had rebuffed his demand Idriss be fired.
Defected Syrian army officers who are living in a camp near this southern Turkish city said Moustafa had meet with them before his resignation and asked them their views of Idriss. Among the complaints: that Idriss was not distributing foreign military aid in an effective manner, and that he had no plans to utilize the defected officers in the fight against the Assad regime, participants at the meeting told McClatchy.
One officer attending the session said he had the strong impression that Moustafa wanted to replace Idriss, but could not convince members of the military council, who feared they would be going in the face of Idriss’s U.S. and Saudi backers.
Later that same day, Moustafa announced his resignation, which he rescinded after the military council picked al-Bashir to replace Idriss.
Layman, of the Syrian Support Group, said that al Bashir is a capable and respected commander, but that by now the SMC is defunct and reviving it would be a herculean task in a complicated, fast-moving theater of war.
“If he can reform the SMC, great,” Layman said, “but a lot of the fighters have already left the SMC structure.”
AFP Photo/Ward al-Keswani