Conversations with the General
Talking to Syria’s rebel leader about chemical weapons, jihadi rebels, and the day after Assad falls.
SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN SYRIA — On a chilly morning in late March, I met the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idris at his headquarters.
But meeting the man in charge of coordinating a bloody uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime isn’t easy. Haberturk, the news channel I work for, was the second news organization to shoot an exclusive interview with him, and we were given strict guidelines beforehand: No disclosure of the location, no revelation of the names and faces of his aides, no mention of how we got there.
Our trip to the compound was arranged by a group of FSA staff who met us at the Turkish-Syrian border. On the way, our guide, a burly man who spoke fluent Turkish and Arabic, guided us through tense crowds and hectic checkpoints. At the border, ambulances, hearses, and military vehicles sped past. A family that seemed to be fleeing with their possessions into Turkey waited by a car piled clumsily with colorful mattresses, blankets, and suitcases. A young, red-bearded jihadist with a green bandana covering his forehead randomly stopped cars and chatted solemnly with drivers. A worn-out billboard by the side of the road read: "Syria Duty Free: Waiting For You."
When we arrived at the base, we were greeted by a group of expressionless rebels dressed in beige-and-green military uniforms. The area we were in was safe, we were told — except for airstrikes. Outside, one very young fighter wielded a gun almost as tall as himself, while the others chain-smoked and whispered among each other. Several cars, most of which had their license plates removed, were parked around the building. Not too far from the entrance, children wearing plastic slippers jumped on a dilapidated tank as if it were a trampoline. The general’s entourage ushered us into the building.
Idris, a tall man with a quiet disposition and a kind smile, doesn’t seem like someone leading an armed revolt. The pink curtains in his modestly furnished office were shut, a television set mounted on the wall was tuned to Al Jazeera. As my crew set up the room for the shoot, two FSA fighters served us dates and mirra, a bitter Arabic coffee served in small espresso cups.
The general defected last July, about two months after the Syrian army attacked his hometown of al-Mubarakiyah, near the city of Homs. Before he switched sides, Idris was a brigadier general in the Syrian army, and taught at the Military Academy of Engineering in Aleppo. But until he could figure out a way to escape from the country without endangering his loved ones, he kept quiet. He would later tell me that the right moment came "maybe a bit late," because he had to make sure his family was safe.
"It’s very dangerous when you defect and leave the country," he said. "The regime will arrest your family and they will kill them."
In addition to fighting a conventional war, Idris has traded accusations with the Assad regime in the past months over the use of chemical weapons. On April 23, Idris received support from an unlikely source: A senior Israeli military intelligence officer claimed that the Syrian military had repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people. If such reports are true, it would mean that the Syrian regime has crossed President Barack Obama’s "red line," which could spark military intervention. The White House has so far remained cautious, demanding more evidence before taking any action. The United Nations has been waiting for a go-ahead from the Syrian regime to investigate such claims, yet the dispute over which sites a U.N. team might have access to is still unresolved. France and Britain have presented their own findings on the matter to the U.N.
In the cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs, Idris said, Assad’s forces had used "the kind of chemical weapons" that are "not so very well known," implying that the FSA hasn’t been able to fully identify the nature of the chemicals that were allegedly used. In the town of Khan al-Assal, where both the regime and rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons, he said that the Syrian military had employed "some kinds of gases" and "phosphorus bombs" against civilians.
When I asked Idris about the Assad regime’s allegations that the FSA had used such weapons, his expression changed. "This must be a joke!" he said. "We don’t [even] have traditional weapons. We are suffering because of lack of weapons and ammunition." He then gestured to the worn-out couches in his office.
Idris not only has to worry about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, he has to quell growing Western fears about the presence of jihadi groups — most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda — in the Syrian uprising. These groups share the FSA’s aim of removing the Assad regime, but have significant disagreements with Idris about Syria’s future. "[Jabhat al-Nusra] is not working under the command of the chief of staff. They don’t like to work with us," he said. "We don’t coordinate with them, we don’t have any plans to work with them in the future. They are a special group, and this group is not working under our command."
Idris blames the media coverage of the conflict for the West’s obsession with the organization. He argues that the global attention even modest victories by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters get blows the capabilities of the organization out of proportion. "In reality, Jabhat al-Nusra is a normal group, and the fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra are not more than 5,000 in all the country," he said, adding that the FSA had about 100,000 "armed" fighters. "Compare 5,000 to that, they [have] very few fighters in Syria," he said.
The Syrian opposition’s political leadership has also downplayed the presence of extremists and pledged to limit their influence. At a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group this past weekend, the opposition rejected "all forms of terrorism" — reassuring the West that any weapons provided to the rebels would not end up in the wrong hands. However, fears of extremism within the rebel ranks continue to delay Western aid to the opposition: While announcing a new $123-million non-lethal aid package at the recent meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced fears that jihadists "could threaten Israel, they could threaten Turkey, they could threaten simply the integrity of the state of Syria."
But Idris argues that Syria’s territorial integrity will be threatened if he doesn’t receive the military support he needs. "I said before, many times, that we are ready to give the Western countries any kind of an insurance that we will use these weapons [only] against the regime, these weapons will be in the right hands," he told me. "And after the fall of the regime … we are ready to give them back these weapons."
Idris says that the FSA has control over "more than 65 percent of the country," and most of the areas under his command are in the eastern and northern regions. However, many analysts seem to think that rebel fighters and government forces have reached a bloody
stalemate, with no side able to win a clear victory, after two years of fierce fighting. Idris says that with a little bit of help, the FSA can regain the upper hand. "[I]f we have enough weapons and ammunition we can put an end to the fight in Syria, we can fall the regime of Bashar al-Assad," he said. " In not more than two months. We can do that."
Meanwhile, the country is spiraling out of control, with at least 70,000 dead and more than a million displaced in the past two years. Given the lack of alternatives, the FSA appears to be looking to benefit from the skills and expertise of jihadi groups fighting in Syria — even as it realizes its long-term goals with such extremists may diverge. "Will you say ‘go away’ to [jihadi groups] while they’re doing the job?" an opposition member in Istanbul recently said in a conversation.
Idris, who told me that he would like "these fighters" to "go home," stressed that what he needed was more weapons, not more jihadists. But experts say that Jabhat al-Nusra’s sophisticated battle techniques provide a much-needed boost to the FSA on the ground.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, recently told the AFP that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters "have acquired a reputation inside the wider insurgency for military prowess and impressive bravery." Opposition sources say the group’s members are praised by locals in areas where they are active, and are generally successful at keeping away thugs and looters, providing safety to terror-stricken civilians.
Idris remains hopeful, but knows that an even tougher job awaits him if and when Assad leaves power. But he’s not vengeful. "I think after falling Bashar al-Assad regime we are going to reconstruct the Syrian Army," he says. "Those officer and soldiers who are not involved in killing and destruction, we will accept them in the army."
"When we have a democratic country, a free country," said Idris, "you don’t need an army to defend the presidency or the power of the family…. That was a very big mistake in Syria, but it is, as you know, the dictatorship."
Afsin Yurdakul is a journalist, news anchor, and fellow with the Nieman Foundation.