U.S. point man for Syrian rebels is sidelined, powerless

McClatchy InteractiveDecember 4, 2013 

Mideast Syria

Nov. 21, 2013 -- Shiite fighters run to cover during clashes between the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army and Syrian soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad, supported by Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters, in the town of Hejeira, which Syrian troops captured, in the countryside of Damascus, Syria.


Gen. Salim Idriss, the Syrian officer who defected and now leads the U.S.-backed effort to streamline rebel forces in the fight against President Bashar Assad's regime, is seeing his authority evaporate as his men are outgunned by militant Islamist rivals.

Idriss heads the Supreme Military Council, or SMC, ostensibly the umbrella group for the various militias fighting under the catchall term "Free Syrian Army." In fact, no such cohesive force ever existed and Idriss's efforts to create one now appear doomed as a result of battlefield developments and the general's own controversial remarks in an interview this week.

In a column Monday, The Washington Post's David Ignatius describes a telephone interview with Idriss:

Idriss didn't demand as a precondition that President Bashar Assad resign before negotiations begin.

Instead, he said, Assad's departure should come "at the end of negotiations." This position was echoed by Monzer Akbik, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition council, the moderate rebels' political arm.

Idriss stressed the threat posed by the al-Qaeda affiliate known as the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," or ISIS. He said the group was "very dangerous for the future of Syria" and that after Assad's departure, the Free Syrian Army would be ready to join the regular Syrian army in fighting them.

Rania Abouzeid, an acclaimed freelance journalist whose dispatches from Syria are closely followed by observers of the conflict, said at an appearance this week in DC that Idriss's jihadist rivals already have seized on his remarks as evidence that the so-called Free Syrian Army lacks the will and strength to see the fight to the finish.

Hardline Islamist rebels reject the diplomatic track in Geneva as selling out the cause because it requires negotiation with regime delegates. And it's unpopular, to say the least, for Idriss to suggest that he'd offer fighters to serve alongside the regime's forces, which are now battering rebel positions in several areas.

And the remarks follow other recent setbacks, most notably the mass exodus of SMC-allied fighters to a new Islamist rebel bloc that rejects such U.S.-backed groups as Idriss's rebel coalition or its civilian counterpart, the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

The takeaway: Idriss simply has no authority over the disparate rebel factions, is outperformed by the militant Islamist forces, and hasn't received promised equipment from Western allies. His rapid descent leaves the United States with no reliable partner, whether civilian or military, in the Syrian conflict.

The State Department doesn't seem deterred, however. Officials are still planning for the Geneva 2 peace summit next month and are courting Idriss's support for the process. Here's an exchange from Monday's State Department briefing with spokeswoman Jen Psaki:

QUESTION: Finally, yesterday there was a report in the Telegraph, The London Telegraph, that says basically the Free Syrian Army now is becoming a group of warlords and accumulating money and gangs and so on and have no interest, really, in reaching a settlement. Is that your assessment, or are you still working very closely with General Idris?

MS. PSAKI: We are still working very closely with General Idris, we’re still working towards a Geneva conference in January, and we still believe there’s no military solution, as you know.


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