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Rebels top commander denies fleeing Syria to Qatar

Local | 2013-12-12 00:00:00
Rebels top commander denies fleeing Syria to Qatar

Chairman of FSA Joint Chiefs of Staff denied to Zaman Alwasl claims of fleeing Syria to Qatar or any place as the American Wall Street Journal reported.

''Such rumors intended to weaken the morale of Free Syrian Army fighters,'' Gen. Salim Idriss said.

WSJ said that Islamist fighters ran the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, according to U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Gen. Idriss flew to the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday after fleeing to Turkey, U.S. officials said Wednesday. "He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters," a senior U.S. official said to WSJ.

An Islamic Front spokesman also said Gen. Idris had fled to Turkey.

Idriss told Zaman Alwasl that he is in regular travelling recently for military and human purposes related to FSA armament and to mobilize support for Syrian Revolution.

The Islamists took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria, WSJ said.

 Idriss eased of the U.S. decision importance to suspend aid non-lethal, saying, it will not change the balance of power on the ground and will not affect combat operations, pointing out that what they Washington has offered was no more than communication devices, computers and military uniforms and some body armor, ''it is not a strategic weapon,'' he added.

According to Zaman Alwasl, Joint Chiefs in  a statement issued last Friday denied the claims of attacking its depots by al-Qaeda affiliated, the State of Iraq and The Levant ( ISIL) and the Islamic Front.

The Statement said the Chiefs had asked the assistance of the Islamic groups  when its depots in Idlib province had been attacked by an armed group.  

The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham has protected FSA officers who escaped death, as well it has secured the rest of the depots, Zaman Alwasl source said.

The turn of events, according to WSJ, was the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war. It also weakened the Obama administration's hand as it struggles to organize a peace conference next month bringing together rebels and the regime.

The Islamic Front is a recently formed alliance of the largest Islamist rebel groups that excludes the two main al Qaeda-linked rebel groups—the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham—and is considered the more moderate faction among Islamist rebel groups.

The Front took over the warehouses and offices controlled by the Supreme Military Council, the moderate opposition umbrella group that includes the FSA and coordinates U.S. aid distribution, officials said. They also seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, near the warehouses in the town of Atmeh.

The growing strength of the Islamic Front prompted the U.S. and its allies to recently hold direct talks with Islamic Front representatives. The goal, according to Western officials, was to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference set for Geneva on Jan. 22 for fear that a lasting accord won't be possible without their backing. The SMC already agreed to participate in the peace talks.

The Obama administration is still trying to determine the circumstances of the takeover over the weekend. At the same time, the U.S. is urging Gen. Idris to return to Syria, American officials said.

Two senior officials said the warehouses taken over by the Islamic Front appeared to contain a range of lethal and nonlethal equipment.

The Central Intelligence Agency has been providing small amounts of arms to handpicked moderate rebels. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment on whether American weapons were in the warehouses that were seized by the Islamic Front. Gen. Idris also receives weapons from other countries, including Saudi Arabia.

The warehouses also housed nonlethal military gear, including American-supplied trucks and communications equipment.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been complaining to the administration for months that the moderate opposition was being weakened by a lack of U.S. support, fueling the rise of Islamists.

U.S. officials said the Islamic Front offered to help protect the headquarters and two warehouse facilities from harder line groups. Then, when the Islamic Front came in and helped secure the sites, "they asserted themselves and said: 'All right, we're taking over,' " a senior U.S. official said.

U.S. officials say there was no battle for control of the facilities between the SMC and the Islamic Front. One senior U.S. official said the takeover amounted to "an internal coup." But other U.S. officials disputed that characterization.

"I wouldn't say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris," a senior U.S. official said.

Earlier in the day, the Obama administration said it still wanted to work with the SMC, but it was unclear when the suspension of aid would be lifted.

They said it was also unclear whether the Islamic Front's actions will affect any future contacts with U.S. diplomats regarding the peace conference.

A White House spokesman said U.S. humanitarian assistance, which is distributed through international and nongovernmental organizations including the United Nations, wouldn't be affected by the suspension.

Like the U.S., the British Foreign Office said it was investigating the events over the weekend. The British government said it wanted to ensure that military assistance reaches the SMC and doesn't fall into the hands of hard-line Islamists. The British also said their humanitarian aid wouldn't be affected. The American nonlethal aid includes trucks, food and medical kits for Free Syrian Army fighters, who are allied with the SMC.

The British have supplied search-and-rescue equipment, power generators and communications support and training for civil administrations. In August, they provided equipment to protect against chemical weapons attacks such as protective hoods, detector paper and nerve agent treatments. 

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. remains supportive of the SMC but acknowledged that any pause in aid makes those efforts more challenging. "The SMC continues to be, and this hasn't changed, the group that we work through and that we want other countries to provide aid and assistance to," she said.

The Turkish government said it closed the border crossing of Cilvegozu in Hatay province after the Islamic Front took control from the SMC of the checkpoint just across from it on the Syrian side, Bab al-Hawa. The checkpoint is near the aid warehouses and about 25 miles west of Syria's largest city and commercial center, Aleppo.


Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, has estimated the Islamic Front's fighting strength at 45,000. The FSA, which had been the largest rebel fighting force and was once estimated to have 70,000 to 150,000 fighters, now has about 40,000 men, according to one commander.

Opposition activists in the disputed area said the Islamic Front is seeking to diminish the moderate umbrella group.

"They don't want the SMC to exist. They took over all their bases and set up new checkpoints," an activist in the area said by Skype.

Elements of the Islamic Front have in the past cooperated in antigovernment operations with both FSA fighters as well as the al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups.

Members of the moderate, Western-backed opposition said the only differences they have with the Islamic Front is that it seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, whereas the SMC and FSA want a secular, democratic state.

But there are growing signs that the SMC is losing legitimacy among the increasing ranks of Islamist rebels. In the beginning of November, the Front called for a reorganization of SMC. It has also asked the SMC to supply them with weapons.

"They would distribute weapons based on previous decisions not based on which battlefronts were in greatest need, a member of the Islamic Front's political office said." This is why we called for the reorganization of the SMC."

However, the SMC said the Islamic Front is better funded and armed than the SMC. Some activists and rebels see the Islamic Front making a power grab.

"They want to be on top of the pyramid of power," one rebel affiliated with the SMC said. (with Wall Street Journal)



Zaman Alwasl
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