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Middle East

Saudi-Qatari rivalry, depot raid blamed for FSA reshuffle

Syrian army soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk in Talet Alghaliya, after claiming to have regained control of the area February 17, 2014. (REUTERS/George Ourfalian)

AMMAN/BEIRUT: The rebel Free Syrian Army has sacked its leader after he fell out with the Saudi-supported head of the moderate opposition to President Bashar Assad, opposition sources said Monday.

General Salim Idriss, whose relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated after he opened channels with Qatar, was replaced by Brig. Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir, head of FSA operations in Qunaitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the sources said.

Bashir assumes leadership of a force trying to regain the initiative from rival and better-organized Islamist groups that have overshadowed it in fighting against Assad.

A statement signed by 22 of the FSA’s 30-member Supreme Military Council said the decision was prompted by “the ineffectiveness of the command in the past few months ... and to provide leadership for military operations against the criminal regime and its allies from terrorist organizations.”

A statement by the National Coalition, which includes 15 members of the FSA, said news of Bashir’s appointment came as a “relief.”

Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure close to Saudi Arabia, became president of the coalition last July after an expansion last year that diluted the influence of Qatari-backed members.

“Idriss appears to have gotten too close to the Qataris, prompting Jarba to move against him,” one of the opposition sources said.

Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, main backers of Assad’s civilian and military opponents, has deepened divisions in the opposition. It has also strengthened Assad as his government talks with the National Coalition at U.S.-and Russian-sponsored negotiations in Geneva.

The coalition’s delegation added several FSA commanders to its negotiating team in the second round of peace talks, which concluded on the weekend without little result.

The announcement to remove Idriss, who had served in the Corps of Engineers of Assad’s army, was made Sunday after an SMC meeting in Turkey attended by Asaad Mustafa, defense minister in a provisional government set up by the opposition last year, the sources said.

Mustafa, whose ties with Idriss have been tense, indicated last week to members of the provisional government he intended to resign. He changed his mind after receiving backing from Jarba, an official in the opposition government said.

Idriss was visiting the United Arab Emirates when he learned of his sacking, the sources said. He still has supporters in the SMC and could try to contest the decision with their help.

Dissident rebels have long been wary of accepting Idriss, who has spent most of his time outside Syria since being chosen as a consensus figure to lead the Supreme Military Council set up with Arab and Western backing in December 2012.

But a diplomat based in the Middle East said Bashir was a relative unknown who was unlikely to solve divisions within the FSA. “Idriss’ supporters are not going to take his sacking sitting down. The only reason Bashir was appointed is that he is close to Jarba,” the diplomat said.

A spokesman for the SMC, which oversees the FSA, said the turning point came when Al-Qaeda-linked militants tried to seize warehouses belonging to the group near the Turkish border in December, leading to the facilities’ takeover by militias from the Islamic Front.

The raid prompted a cutoff of Western supplies to the rebels, leaving fighters without arms and scattering weakened opposition forces.

“We waited three months after the assault and seizure of the [warehouse],” spokesman Col. Qassem Saadeddine told Al-Arabiya TV.

“But the situation only became worse. There began to be divisions in the armed opposition. There was no military leadership. The military leadership was scattered, each leader of a brigade worked alone,” he said.

The spokesman said other council members were outraged when Idriss did not publicly blame the rival rebels for the theft. “[The rebels] did not return a single weapon, and he [Idris] did not do a thing. All the officers went to their tents and the warehouses were empty, and nothing remained of the FSA.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2014, on page 8.

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