ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: Regional unit commanders of the rebel Syrian Free Army rejected the dismissal this week of their chief by the group’s foreign-based command council and pledged to keep fighting under his command.
Their repudiation of the decision was a further sign of disarray within the fragmented opposition movement that has weakened the nearly three-year uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Jostling for influence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two major patrons of Assad’s civilian and military opponents, has compounded the divisions.
The Supreme Military Council of the rebel FSA dismissed Gen. Salim Idriss Sunday after a tenure that saw numerous setbacks in the anti-Assad insurgency as well as what opposition sources said were rising tensions between him and the National Coalition’s Saudi-backed chief.
A statement by 22 members of the FSA’s 30-strong military council said the decision was prompted by incompetence in the rebel command and a need to improve battlefield leadership.
But Idriss was defiant, saying in a video where he was flanked by regional commanders that they would cut ties with the defense minister in the National Coalition-appointed “temporary government.”
In his video statement released Wednesday, Idriss called for a reformation of the council to make use of a broader spectrum of rebel groups and urged “revolutionary and military forces on the ground” to present a united front against Assad.
In an online video posted late Tuesday, unit commanders representing relatively secular rebels in Syria’s five main battle zones denounced the decision to fire Idriss and accused National Coalition leaders of exacerbating rebel divisions.
“[We] consider the dismissal of the head of the General Staff, General Salim Idriss, null and illegitimate,” Fateh Hassoun, FSA commander for central Syria, said in the video. He added Idriss’ backers would keep fighting under his command.
“No group that is not present on the country’s soil has the right to take a crucial decision that does not represent the views of the forces working on the ground,” he said, reading from a statement.
It was not immediately possible to identify all the men in the video, who referred to themselves as “leaders of the fronts and military councils ... in Syria” and were dressed in military fatigues.
One of the men, Mohammad al-Abboud, the FSA commander for Syria’s eastern front, confirmed by phone that he opposed the decision, having not been consulted.
Relations between Idriss and Saudi Arabia deteriorated after he opened channels with Qatar, opposition sources have said.
He was replaced this week by Abdul-Ilah Bashir, head of FSA operations in Qunaitra province, in a meeting which sources said was attended by Asaad Mustafa, defense minister in a provisional government set up by the opposition last year.
Mustafa’s office could not be reached for comment.
Munzer Aqbiq, chief of staff in National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba’s office, denied that the decision to ditch Idriss was politically motivated and said it was made to put someone who was fighting inside Syria in charge.
“They need someone who is fighting on the ground instead of someone who was distant from operations; Bashir was good on the field and has fought several battles.”
An FSA leader who did not want to be named said a lack of resources, not Idriss’ leadership, was to blame for setbacks under his command, such as an incident in December when the FSA lost a border crossing with Turkey to rival Islamist insurgents, which embarrassed the organization and prompted the United States and Britain to suspend nonlethal aid.