BEIRUT: The opposition National Coalition announced Thursday that it has settled a simmering dispute over the leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army, by retaining its newly appointed head and giving its former chief an advisory post.
Ahmad Jarba, the head of the coalition, has been presiding over a series of meetings in Istanbul in recent days to resolve the issue, which arose last month when Gen. Salim Idriss and a number of FSA commanders rejected Idriss’ ouster by the FSA’s Supreme Military Council.
The agreement reached in Istanbul also saw Asaad Mustafa, the defense minister in the coalition’s provisional government, tender his resignation – Mustafa was seen as a key opponent of Idriss’ performance as FSA leader.
However, as part of the deal, Mustafa could become the interior minister in the coalition’s provisional government.
In return, Idriss agreed to accept his replacement by Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir, and was appointed Jarba’s adviser on military affairs.
A source from the media office at the interim government’s Defense Ministry told The Daily Star that the moves were part of the FSA’s drive to shore up its presence inside Syria, in an effort to unify the many disparate elements of the mainstream rebel force.
The source was adamant that the FSA still sought to bring every “non-Al-Qaeda” fighting group under its command. “The goal is to unite all rebel groups, but not those affiliated with Al-Qaeda. And there should be no foreigners involved [in the drive to topple the regime].”
An observer of the FSA and other rebel groups told The Daily Star that Idriss is seen as enjoying close ties with Qatar, meaning that the latest moves could be interpreted as allowing Saudi Arabia, which backs Jarba, to succeed in its drive to remove Idriss from the top rebel post.
The observer, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, acknowledged that many people have written off the FSA as an effective military force on the ground.
However, several elements are currently playing a role in the FSA leadership and reorganization moves: the possibility of receiving stepped-up military assistance from foreign backers, integrating several thousand defected officers outside Syria, and putting forward a tangible alternative to the conservative, Islamist-oriented rebel militias that are dominant on the ground.
The observer said that after Idriss openly rejected the leadership shake-up, Jarba was obliged to address the matter firmly.
When Idriss originally rejected his ouster, he was joined by two leading FSA figures from the southern province of Deraa, Col. Ahmad Naameh and Bashar Zoubi.
“Jarba needs them, because they are in control of important parts of Deraa province, and with today’s announcement, he appears to have satisfied them,” the observer said.
The importance of southern Syria for the FSA was also apparent in the fact that while other parts of the country had a single representative in the Istanbul meetings, Deraa had three – Naameh as the Deraa Military Council head, Zoubi as the “revolutionary leader” of the southern front, and Gen. Ziad al-Fahd as the southern front’s military commander.
The observer said the FSA would have to sort out its internal tensions if it had any hope of achieving its ambitious plans to reintegrate an estimated several thousand defected officers outside Syria, who have yet to play a role in the war.
Meanwhile, a rebel figure who emerged in the rebels’ war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) criticized the moves being made outside the country.
In January, two FSA-affiliated groups – the Mujahedeen Army and the Syria Rebel Front – spearheaded a campaign against ISIS militants, triggering a wave of violence and clashes that have claimed thousands of lives.
Lt. Col. Mohammad Abdel-Qader Bakkour, the head of the Mujahedeen Army, told a pro-opposition website Thursday that the SMC “has yet to learn from the mistakes of the past.”
Bakkour said that any “military group outside the country is bound to fail, unless the true revolutionary forces [inside the country] have the power of decision-making.”
“People are working night and day to unify the ranks of the FSA,” Bakkour said, while also addressing the fact that thousands of defectors are residing in refugee camps and hesitant to join the armed insurrection.
“If you think that there are posts awaiting you, you are deluded,” Bakkour said, addressing the military defectors.
“You need to join this revolution and forget that you are officers – you are our brothers. Come and help your brother fighters with your considerable expertise.”
He said the appointment of Bashir as the new FSA chief was less important than shoring up the FSA as a functioning institution.
“Individuals aren’t important. It’s more important to see the person who will be tasked with a certain place be on good terms with all sides, and that work become institutionalized,” he said.
“The Supreme Military Council and the FSA’s chief-of-staff have been characterized by failure up to now,” he added.