As skepticism mounts in Congress over a proposed military strike in Syria, hawks on Capitol Hill are questioning why the Obama administration isn’t using one of its most powerful advocates for intervention: General Salim Idriss, commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council.
Long heralded as the poster child for Syria’s moderate rebels, Idriss has yet to travel to Washington to make his case for U.S. intervention — and it’s not for lack of trying. Congressional sources and members of the Syrian opposition tell The Cable that the Obama administration has delayed or cancelled at least three scheduled trips for Idriss to come to Washington since March.
“The White House has stepped in at the eleventh hour to cancel planned trips in which tickets were bought and hotels were booked for Gen. Idriss to come to Washington,” a frustrated Congressional aide tells The Cable. “It’s beyond me why the administration is trying to prevent a very articulate person from answering the fundamental question that almost every lawmaker wants to know: Who the Hell is the opposition?”
A German-trained engineer with moderate views, Idriss has attracted the West with his nonsectarian outlook ever since he defected from the Assad regime last summer.
To trip planners in the Syrian opposition, the State Department keeps coming up with new excuses to call off planned trips. In March, Idriss sent letters to U.S. officials asking for night vision goggles, humanitarian aid and training. Afterwards, the department blocked a trip to Washington telling opposition leaders it didn’t want to the bring the opposition’s military leaders to Washington before welcoming its political leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. In late June, after the administration determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, the department blocked another planned trip. “We were told that they didn’t want Idriss to come yet because they didn’t think they could send him back with anything [i.e. weapons]” said a Syrian opposition source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Following the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 in which hundreds were killed, another effort to bring Idriss to Washington was again delayed by the State Department. “They thought it wasn’t necessary because there was enough momentum behind the vote,” said the opposition source.
But whatever momentum there may have been seems to have grinded to a halt. Preliminary whip counts show mounting opposition to a Syria strike in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. Polls uniformly show that Americans are hostile to an assault on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime: The latest survey, by CNN, found that 72 percent of Americans believe that an attack would not achieve anything for the United States.
Now, more than ever, advocates of intervention say Idriss’s presence is needed to boost the case for surgical strikes. “People need to see that this is the leader of the armed opposition,” Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Cable. “He is the only one who has the ability to reassure members of Congress that the armed opposition is moderate and that the extremists can be marginalized.”
It’s still possible that Idris will find his way to Washington for a last-minute charm offensive. Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that Idris “is prepared” to travel to Washington to speak with Congress. At the time, the general was making his case in Germany and London. But opposition sources say those plans have yet to materialize.
The White House and the State Department did not reply to requests for comment, but there may be other reasons the administration wants to keep Idris at arm’s length. While his Supreme Military Council has gained a great deal of international exposure, it remains of limited influence among fighting groups on the ground, which has led some officials to prefer that he focus on building stronger networks in Syria rather than yuck it up in Washington.
“The Supreme Military Council does not have a lot of traction on the ground,” said Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow Andrew Tabler. “[T]hey haven’t been supported with arms, and they’re spending a lot of time in Western capitals, instead of inside the country spreading their influence.”
Still, some hawks in Congress say those tactical concerns should take a backseat to the job of convincing lawmakers to authorize a strike in Syria. “Lawmakers, especially Republicans need to know more about the opposition,” said the congressional aide. “How many are radical? What percentage is politically-predisposed to hating the West? You saw that question from lawmakers all last week.”
Syrian activists, meanwhile, find themselves on the defensive — forced to beat back a litany of criticisms about the proposed U.S. mission in Syria and the opposition itself. Farah Atassi, a Syrian-American activist who supports intervention, says the media’s constant attempt to paint the uprising as a bout of sectarian bloodletting misrepresents the conflict.
“What strikes me most in this debate is the amount of misinformation and ignorance when it comes to the roots of the Syrian revolution,” she says. “Many people are under the illusion that a civil war is going on in Syria. This revolution was started by ordinary Syrian citizens — not by radicals, extremists, or Islamists.”
The Obama administration has relied on Kerry to address Congressional concerns about extremist elements within the Syrian opposition – primarily the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Kerry played down the importance of such groups during Congressional testimony last week, saying that only 15 to 25 percent of rebels belonged to extremist groups and that more moderate forces are getting stronger by the day.
The success of the administration’s pitch will become clearer after this week’s vote in the Senate. But as the “no” votes stack up, some hawks wish they had Idriss on their side right about now.