Syrian rebel leader feels betrayed by West’s failure to deliver arms

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 16, 2013 

— Three weeks after the United States and other powers promised “urgent, practical steps” to help Syrian rebel forces tilt the balance on the ground against the government of President Bashar Assad, the top rebel commander says there hasn’t been any progress and his fighters are in “a critical and dangerous” situation.

“We are really in a very critical situation, and we don’t understand why our friends delay and delay and delay and hesitate to support us,” Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, told McClatchy.

He said rebel forces were receiving between one-tenth and one-twentieth of the arms and ammunition they needed to take on forces loyal to Assad. “Our friends are not acting, just thinking,” he said. “At the end of the day we are not getting any kind of military support. We told them repeatedly what we need. But it is just hopeless.”

The latest blow to the rebels was the decision Monday by British Prime Minister David Cameron to abandon his plan to send arms after members of his Conservative Party in Parliament expressed deep doubts about the wisdom of that course.

The Obama administration, after determining that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against rebel forces, announced June 13 that it would send small arms, ammunition and other military equipment to rebel forces. But the initiative, which is to utilize the CIA to deliver the weapons, is stalled in Congress, where some leading lawmakers say the administration has no clear strategy for Syria.

The international commitment to send support to the groups that are fighting to topple Assad was drafted by the foreign ministers of 11 Arab and Western countries in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Secretary of State John Kerry and his British, French and Arab colleagues pledged to provide “all necessary equipment to counter the government’s brutal attacks” and to channel it through Idriss’ Supreme Military Council. The final communique left it up to each country to decide what to provide.

“We don’t understand what happened,” Idriss told McClatchy late Monday. “The final communique was clear. It said, ‘We will arm the Syrian opposition.’ We didn’t see anything.”

“It’s very difficult to say we didn’t break our promises. We did,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the British Royal United Services Institute, a research center in Doha. “We Brits guaranteed him help and basically backed away from him. Was it disingenuous? A little bit. Duplicitous? A little bit.”

A West European diplomat whose country took part in the Doha talks said Idriss had reason to be frustrated. “He has every reason to be upset,” said the diplomat, who spoke only anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to make a public statement. “There was a change of heart and mind at Doha. But what was promised is not being delivered, and now the countries that made the promises are blaming it on their legislatures.”

What role Idriss’ military council has in the rebel movement is a contested topic. While the United States and other countries have pledged to route weapons through him, Idriss doesn’t exert control over individual fighting units in Syria. The fragmented nature of the opposition has made coordination and supply thorny issues, as has the existence among the rebels of Islamist units with ties to al Qaida. Idriss has assured Western officials that weapons he receives won’t find their way to those groups, the most prominent of which, the Nusra Front, the United States has designated an international terrorist organization.

Idriss said the rebels were more than holding their own in eastern Syria and recently had made progress in taking control of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city. But the situation around the capital of Damascus was “very critical.”

The most serious crisis was in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, where government forces are pressing to dislodge rebels that have occupied the historic center. Idriss said rebels there and an unknown number of civilians who remain in the area were facing daily bombardment with artillery and surface-to-surface midrange missiles, as well as attacks by government troops and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

“The fighters there are trying to defend the town with traditional Kalashnikovs and machine guns,” he said, referring to AK-47 assault rifles. “Even a regular army could not face this kind of power.”

Idriss’ other major concern was growing tensions with radical Islamists, which culminated in the murder of Kamal Hamami, a member of his Supreme Military Council. He said the group, which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was an affiliate of the al Qaida terrorist organization.

“They’re becoming very, very dangerous, and very aggressive,” he said. “We don’t have enough weapons to fight the regime, and now we have to fight the State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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