The Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) military council fired Chief General Salim Idris over the weekend, replacing him with Brigadier General Abdel-ilah Albashir. The council hopes that a leadership shakeup will help the group regain its stalled political and military momentum in Syria’s civil war. Idris’ ousting also comes as the Syrian government and rebel forces fail to find common ground towards ending the fighting during peace talks in Geneva.
The FSA comprises mostly secular rebel groups funded by Western and Gulf Arab states. It was founded in 2012 in order to centralize an opposition leadership and command structure. However, rebel forces remain disparate groups of brigades, with the FSA mostly acting as a conduit for weapons and financial aid. While once the largest coalition in Syria, the more radical Islamic Front has siphoned off members from the FSA, and now has thousands more fighters.
Former Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idris, at a conference in 2013. (Photo: AP)
Defection from the FSA led to infighting among rebels or a war within a war which has weakened the FSA in the north. It was driven out of its headquarters in the Idlib province of Northern Syria and forced to relocate the Supreme Military Council to Turkey. The al-Asad regime has taken advantage of the fractious opposition to make territorial gains in the center of the country near Damascus and Homs. Asad is also said to be bombing targets near Aleppo, forcing rebels and civilians to flee north.
With al-Asad’s recent gains the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other backers of the opposition have doubled down on their support for the FSA, believing the regime will be less willing to engage seriously in peace talks while it retains momentum against rebel forces in much of the country. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has also paid millions in salaries to rebel troops. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has sent more sophisticated surface-to- air missiles, including mobile anti-aircraft missiles, to the Southern Front, a rebel group fighting in southern Syria under the umbrella of the FSA. While the Southern Front has successfully seized some government military bases and strongholds, Western governments voice concern over the transfer of advanced surface to air weapons.