Will Selim Idris’s Removal Further Fragment the Opposition?

This week, the Syrian National Coalition announced that it had removed the head of its Supreme Military Council and commander of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Selim Idris, after he reportedly [clashed with members of the opposition in exile.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Idris, who has long faced criticism over a lack of battlefield experience, was replaced by Brigadier General Abdelilah al-Bashir, who formerly oversaw the FSA’s operations in disputed Quneitera province, which shares a border with the Golan Heights.

Twenty-two of 30 members of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) said in a statement that the ouster had been prompted by “the ineffectiveness of the command in the past few months … and to provide leadership for military operations against the criminal regime and its allies from terrorist organizations.”

Though the opposition National Coalition issued a statement calling the move a “relief,” analysts say it could serve to further fragment the moderate opposition, which has seen its power and influence slip both with the international community and on the battlefield after months of infighting. 

We asked Aron Lund, an expert on rebel fighting groups and the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis page, to weigh in.

Syria Deeply: What is happening right now on the military side of the SMC?

Aron Lund: It seems Idris has been deposed formally by the majority of the SMC, but he and his allies refuse to accept that. They’ve divided Syria into five fronts, north and south and so on, and most of the executive commanders of those fronts have come out and said they support Idris and not his replacement, Bashir. At the moment, Idris and those backing him are perhaps one-third of the SMC’s leadership, and they’ve declared that they’ve cut their ties to the opposition’s exiled government.

There’s a lot of confusion about who’s actually in charge right now. Is Bashir going to say something about this? How are the states funding the SMC going to react to this? Then you have people saying Idris didn’t matter anyway because he didn’t have a lot of credibility, because the SMC hasn’t been been playing a significant role on the battlefield.

SD: Idris was largely unpopular among his SMC colleagues, largely because he lacked credibility on the ground. What were the reasons for his ouster? Was it part of an image makeover of sorts of the moderate opposition?

AL: That definitely could be part of it. Idris has been in the post since December 2012, but the SMC been widely seen as a failure, and even some people still aligned with it and with its foreign backers were personally opposed to Idris.

In November 2013, some groups that had been in the SMC left and created the Islamic Front. After that there was an affair in northern Syria where the SMC had its headquarters taken over and its main stockpiles of equipment taken, and that ended with the Islamic Front taking control of the office and stockpiles. Idris went out there and said it’s not a problem, the Islamic Front are our brothers. But some in the SMC felt that Idris had failed to manage the affair properly, so that was something that rankled.

When you look at the various SMC-aligned groups involved in ousting him, it includes Jamal Maarouf and his alliance, the Syria Revolutionaries Front; the defense minister of the exiled government; and Ahmad Jarba, the National Coalition leader. One thing that unites those three is that they have been regularly portrayed throughout the uprising as being aligned with Saudi Arabia. If that’s true, does it mean that there a regional dimension to this, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Or is Saudi Arabia in charge here, and it wants to remodel the SNC, and Idris just wasn’t part of that plan, so he’s been kicked out?

SD: Has this served to further fracture the opposition?

AL: So far it’s fragmented it further on the surface because for the time being, the SMC has been split into two groups: Idris’s SMC and Bashir’s SMC. But the reason for all this happening is probably that you have more resources coming in, and that is accelerating the changes to the SMC structure. You have more money and arms flowing from some funding nations, including Saudi Arabia. And you have outside competition with the rise of the Islamic Front, and inside competition with the creation of Jamal Maarouf’s Syria Revolutionaries Front. There are clearly some large shifts going on within the foreign-backed rebel movements, and the SMC split is probably one result of that, although it’s not clear to me what made it happen now and in this way. It’s very murky.

Even if this splits the SMC leadership, they were always just the public face of this structure. The important part is the money flow, and the guns being shipped around, but these are things that are mostly invisible to us. Even if the reflection of that is the SMC splitting, maybe increased funding will help unite the fragments of the opposition in the end, and maybe Bashir will have enough backing to become a credible leader.

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