While the Syrian opposition brawls in an Istanbul hotel, the battlefield fighting is increasingly within the rebel camp.
- By Susannah GeorgeSusannah George is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Late on the night of March 6, a few dozen leading members of Syria’s political and military opposition gathered in a hotel room in Istanbul’s Wyndham Hotel, not far from the airport. They were there to talk: to work out their issues and to heal the rifts currently tearing apart their group and hurting their cause. Within 30 minutes, however, the friendly meeting had degenerated into a brawl.
Leaders who had come to chat ended up yelling curses and throwing punches. Ahmed Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed opposition’s political wing was punched three times in the face. The dustup began with insulting language and "light clashes," according to Omar Abu Leila, an opposition spokesperson at the meeting, but escalated quickly after someone — he said it was a member of the Free Syrian Army’s leadership body, but he couldn’t see who exactly — yelled, "there are a couple of people here whose heads need cracking."
The meeting ended, Abu Leila said, with people being pulled apart and Jarba cursing both sides. "Jarba was trying to bring an end to the clashes, but he still got whacked," he said.
The Wyndham Hotel brawl was the ugly culmination of months of squabbling at the highest levels of Syria’s Western-backed opposition group. Meanwhile, the opposition was also taking a beating on the battlefield: The Western-backed rebel forces, hobbled by infighting with the al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), have suffered a series of setbacks against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Regime forces, with the help of Hezbollah, recently consolidated their hold on territory along Syria’s border with Lebanon, seizing the strategically important town of Yabroud. Meanwhile, rebel-held territory around Damascus has been transformed from strongholds used to launch attacks on the capital to pockets of territory under siege — forcing a number of rebel groups, desperate for food and medical assistance, to accept ceasefire agreements with the regime.
"We’re all asking the SMC [Supreme Military Council] to pull together," said a State Department official, speaking on background due to the sensitivity of the issue. "We all regret this shakeup."
The conflict pits Jarba against Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader Gen. Salim Idriss, leaving Syria’s moderate opposition leadership effectively split into two rival camps. Idriss was fired at the behest of Jarba and the so-called Council of 30, the top leadership body of the SMC, in a vote at a Feb. 16 meeting in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. In a video announcement, Jarba said Idriss had been voted out due to "difficulties faced by the Syrian revolution." Idriss was replaced by little known Gen. Abdelilah al-Bashir, the head of FSA operations in Quneitra province.
But Idriss has not gone quietly, calling the vote illegitimate in a Skype interview from Istanbul. "A 30-member council is not authorized to fire me," he said. A few dozen commanders on the ground in Syria have also refused to recognize the vote, he said, proudly reading their names off a handwritten list — proof, he says, that he is still the true leader of the FSA. The most prominent of the men sticking by Idriss’s side are Fateh Hassoun and Bashar al-Zouabi — the FSA commanders from the regions of Homs and Deraa, respectively — who both command sizeable forces as well respect within their ranks.
Whatever the reason why he was fired, Idriss is taking it personally. "I don’t understand why Jarba hates me," he said.
Jarba and the SMC leadership are framing the personnel shuffle as part of a larger strategic restructuring aimed at reviving the increasingly ineffective fighting force. The plan is said to include a shift away from Syria’s north, where infighting with Islamists has sapped rebel strength, toward the country’s southern front. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. intelligence cooperation, has reportedly increased its supply of weapons to these southern-based rebels, by funneling the arms across the Jordanian border.
But some analysts suspect larger regional power dynamics are at play — namely, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf countries both support the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but they have competed intensely for influence across the Middle East, including in Syria, where each group backs different political players. Tensions sharpened recently when Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization — Qatar has long maintained close relations to the venerable Islamist group, serving as the patron of many of its regional affiliates and hosting many of its leaders in Doha. Jarba is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, while some opposition members accuse Idriss of moving closer to Qatar.
While there’s no hard evidence that the Gulf countries were pulling the strings when Idriss was voted out, it is clear that the rebels are being affected by shifts among their foreign patrons.
"There are [battlefield rebel] coalitions forming and splitting, and that tends to show that there is something happening with the funding," said Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website. "It’s not like these people suddenly became friends or started to hate each other. It has something to do with who’s paying them to do what and where they can get their resources."
Idriss’s fall may also have been spurred by his disappointing performance as a commander. The general’s detractors all point to a single egregious incident in early December of last year, when members of a rival Islamist rebel alliance, the Islamic Front (IF), seized control of SMC warehouses filled with military equipment supplied by Western and Gulf countries. Instead of lashing out against the IF, Idriss tried to play the incident off as a misunderstanding, saying the Islamists had stepped in to help protect the warehouses, not loot them. Despite his protests, members of the Syrian opposition coalition saw the incident as a public embarrassment. "It was shameful," said Kenan Bwadekji, a spokesperson for Assad Mustafa, Jarba’s Minister of Defense. "His men ran away from the Islamic Front, Idriss didn’t put up any defense."
The United States, alarmed by the theft, temporarily suspended all non-lethal aid to the SMC — a major blow to Idriss.
"Idriss was not a leader," said Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma. "[He] was a bureaucrat with a lot to recommend him in the very beginning. He could speak English and he sat at a desk and he said yes."
Landis said Idriss eventually became more of a clearinghouse, deriving his power and authority from his role as a distributor of foreign aid rather than his military victories, "I don’t think anyone thought he could continue to control authority down the line," Landis said.
So far, there hasn’t been any movement on Syria’s southern front, let alone a military victory. Bashir, the man elected to succeed Idriss and lead the push, is staying under the radar, not accepting interview requests and making no public statements. In his only comment following his appointment, he revealed to the New York Times that he didn’t even know he was in the running to command the SMC until a friend called to congratulate him on his selection.
Coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh downplayed the rift, claiming that the divisions were just growing pains. "The minute we restructure the SMC and bring together actors and forces on the ground, everybody’s going to fall in line," he said. "Are there disagreements? Yes, but everybody is interested in a full restructuring taking place."
In his interview with Foreign Policy, Idriss said he agreed, and claims he was in the midst of reshaping the SMC when he was fired. He also claims he would be happy to collaborate with Bashir, the man elected to replace him. "He’s very well respected," he said. "I can work with him. I’ve worked with him before."
But for his part, Jarba is sticking to his guns. The Syrian opposition leader said in a statement released on March 6 that while Idriss is welcome to take an advisory role in the council, he can no longer lead the SMC. "General Selim Idriss will present his resignation from the presidency of SMC, and he will be appointed as the advisor of President Jarba for military affairs," the statement read.
Meanwhile, outside powers looking to support Syria’s moderate rebels can only wait to see where the dust settles. But even as both Assad and Islamist groups appear to be gaining strength, the opposition forces that the United States hoped could lead Syria to a brighter future appear more focused on squabbling amongst each other.