Monday, April 22, 2013

West pins hopes on Syrian general

By Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Istanbul- Financial Times
Chief commander of the Free Syrian Army Brigadier General Selim Idriss speaks during a press confrence with Alliance of liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group leader and Belgian member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt (unseen) at the EU Parliament in Brussels on March 6, 2013. The press conference focused on the state of play on the ground in Syria and insight into a post-Assad Syria.
Chief commander of the Free Syrian Army Brigadier General Selim Idriss

He is a rare Syrian opposition figure who is not bitterly divisive; a military leader acceptable to many insurgent commanders as well as western supporters of the rebels. But can the hopes pinned on General Selim Idriss be realised?

The chief of staff of a "supreme military command" that in theory groups dozens of factions in Syria's fragmented and undisciplined rebel army was the star attraction at a western and Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Istanbul at the weekend, a gathering designed to persuade a recalcitrant US to take a lead on Syria policy.

For western officials, he represents the best chance of saving Syria from the grip of Bashar al-Assad – and, crucially, that of al-Qaeda. But his dilemma is that he needs western nations to fulfil his wish list if he is ever to deliver on theirs.

Educated in East Germany in the 1980s, General Idriss was the dean of the Aleppo military engineering academy when he defected in the summer of last year. He has lost 63 members of his extended Homs family and all those surviving have their names on a wanted list.

Looking more politician than general, with a dark suit, tie and professorial spectacles, he is focused on the battlefield, not on personal tragedy.

In an interview with the Financial Times in Istanbul, the 55-year-old general says he wants to create a more moderate and stronger alternative to Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group that has emerged as one of the most powerful rebel factions. Except that he cannot do it on his own.

"Our needs are very big and what we have is very little," he says.

Gen Idriss acknowledges that he does not command the forces on the ground and that the body he heads is not a "complete" military organisation since many rebels are civilians.

It would, he says, cost $35m-$40m a month to pay $100 monthly salaries to fighters who have signed up to the supreme command – funds that he lacks at this stage. "Fighters go to where there is money and weapons and if I had the means … within one or two months everyone would join," he says. "They will know that this is a national institution while the brigades and battalions will eventually disappear."

As he told the weekend meeting of foreign ministers, he could build a more credible military leadership, with real command and control, and break the deadly stalemate in the two-year conflict with Bashar al-Assad's forces, if several measures were taken, including a lifting of the European Union arms embargo so that rebels can buy weapons legally, and the establishment of a no-fly zone. He also pleaded for larger and more regular supplies of weapons, particularly anti-tank and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles of which there has only been a trickle available to the rebels.

For now, however, western pledges have been for non-lethal aid, including parts of the new $123m US assistance announced at the weekend – support that the general said was useful but not the priority.

"What's the point of medicines to save one wounded soldier if the regime's air force is striking and killing 40 people at the same time?" The regime is using Scud missiles and the air force to bomb civilian areas, with help from Iran and Russia, he says, while the opposition's resources are severely constrained.

While the UK and France are pressing for an EU arms embargo to be allowed to expire, a no-fly zone is not under discussion and concerns over more advanced weapons provisions persist, not least in the US which fears they could end up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusrah.

The jihadis' influence, the general lamented, had been overblown and that has boosted their appeal among young rebels. If the current stalemate continues, he warns, "it will lead to two things: more killings and more widespread extremism in Syria and the region".

Even the shipments of mostly light weaponry provided by Gulf states have been insufficient, complains the general, amounting to only one-10th of military requirements.

Gen Idriss will not speak about specific countries or deliveries but diplomats say that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main suppliers, have not been channelling all the weapons through the supreme command.

"We say if you want to give something, let us do it so we can tell them how to use it," says Gen Idriss, who has pledged to the US and European nations that he will track every single advanced weapon provided and return it when the conflict is over.

He says shortages of ammunition have been a particular handicap for rebels fighting a much stronger regular army. He points to the example of the Wadi Deif military base in the northern province of Idlib, which was surrounded by the rebels for two months before they ran out of ammunition. "The regime knew the fighters couldn't defend themselves so it sent a convoy of armed trucks and tanks, and broke the siege."

The general's efforts also have been undermined by sparring within the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, which is divided over the recent election of an interim prime minister, a move that also upset one of the rebellion's chief supporters, Saudi Arabia.

While western policy is now focused on stronger support for the general's command in the hope of bringing the regime to the negotiating table, it is likely to remain short of the dramatic moves that analysts say would be needed to alter the balance of power on the ground significantly and allow the supreme command to assert its authority.

Gen Idriss suggests that nothing short of a massive push would persuade Mr Assad to step down and agree a political transition. The Syrian leader will negotiate, he said, only when he feels that "he will lose power by force".

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