Late last night, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), a command structure for the armed Syrian opposition, issued a statement announcing that it had expelled its own chief of staff, Lieutenant General Salim Idris, who is said to be on a work-related visit to Qatar. A copy of what was said to be the written decision lists nearly two dozen SMC commanders that signed off on the move. But confusion reigned—and soon thereafter, an SMC commander called the decision a “coup,” blaming it on a troika of Saudi-backed opposition figures.
The SMC was created in December 2012 to serve as a central command for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term used by many Gulf-backed rebels fighting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. It was quickly endorsed by the United States, the Gulf countries, the EU, and Turkey as the legitimate leadership of the armed rebellion in Syria. But although it gathered many leading rebel commanders, it soon became apparent that the SMC was not an effective leadership. Still, it has played an important role by channeling Saudi and Western support for the rebellion.
Meet the New Boss
Yesterday’s statement declared that the SMC has decided to remove both Idris and a deputy of his in order to rebuild the SMC. Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi was appointed as the new SMC chief of staff, with Colonel Heitham Afeisi as his new deputy.
Noeimi is a former career officer who defected from the regime in July 2012. He belongs to a large Arab tribe called al-Noeim, which has members throughout the Middle East. He has led the SMC’s Quneitra Military Council in the Golan Heights, where his son Talal was killed in combat a few months ago.
Quneitra has not been a major battlefront, given that most of it has been occupied by Israel since 1967 and the rest is sparsely populated. But the southern war is picking up pace, at least partly as a result of new Saudi-financed weapons being transferred into Syria from Jordan.
The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front
Afeisi, the new deputy chief of staff, is head of a reasonably large rebel outfit near Maarrat al-Nouman in northwest Syria. In December 2013, he co-founded the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), which is a large alliance under the sway of Jamal Maarouf, a commander in Idlib. Afeisi has served as Maarouf’s deputy for military affairs.
Maarouf is himself an SMC member and is widely thought to enjoy Saudi patronage. His and Afeisi’s new SRF alliance has been portrayed as an attempt to regroup SMC forces. Some even describe it as the nucleus of a “neo-FSA” or a “national army” that aims to provide military muscle for the exile opposition and to challenge radical jihadis.
Maarouf was recently one of very few field commanders to support the Geneva II conference on peace in Syria. The SRF was also a leading force behind the January 3 purge of the anti-Western jihadi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Islamic Front and Bab al-Hawa
In late November 2013, Islamist rebels created Syria’s largest alliance yet: the Islamic Front. Its sources of funding were unclear, with many in the media pointing to Saudi Arabia, but there were also heavy hints of a Qatari role. While many of the groups in the front were former SMC affiliates, they distanced themselves from both the SMC and the ISIL, staking out a sort of Salafi middle ground. However, according to persistent rumors, some Islamic Front factions did in fact still receive arms via the SMC.
In early December 2013, the Islamic Front took over the strategic Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, capturing the SMC headquarters and Idris’s real powerbase: the SMC’s warehouses, filled with military equipment donated by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other states, for further distribution to friendly rebel groups. Idris was reported to have fled the country, but he denied this and was probably already in Turkey when the crisis arose. He then sought to downplay the conflict with the Islamic Front and find a diplomatic way to defuse the situation. Both Idris and the Islamic Front leaders spent the following week repeating to anyone who would listen that the Islamic Front had in fact moved in on the SMC leader’s request to protect the warehouses from an unnamed third group.
But few listened, and it remains unclear what exactly happened. There are contradictory claims about who tried to rob the SMC first, with some hints that there had been a raid on the warehouses by the lawless anti-SMC jihadis of the ISIL or by an SRF faction that claimed ownership over SMC guns that Idris denied it—or both.
Some SMC supporters, including the SRF, were furious that Idris tried to exonerate the Islamic Front. In the wake of the Bab al-Hawa crisis, December saw tit-for-tat violence between the Islamic Front and the SRF, but the groups then made peace just as quickly. In January, they joined together in an awkward alliance to fight the ISIL, which they’re still doing today.
The Hazm Interlude
In late January 2014, Idris reappeared out of obscurity to bless the creation of a new SMC-aligned group called the Hazm Movement. It was composed of several small rebel groups, including a rump faction of the once-powerful Farouq Battalions. This may have been a riposte by Idris and his supporters to the creation of the SRF. If so, it was the first sign of a serious split within the SMC leadership.
The SRF’s Afeisi reacted to the Hazm Movement’s creation by saying that he considered Idris’s term as leader to be over, threatening to “create a new SMC” instead of “the Salim Idris–led SMC, which has transferred the weapons from the SMC’s warehouses to certain well-known factions while giving no weapons to the other fighting factions.”
Rumors, Resignations, and Day Trips
The past few days have been rife with rebel intrigue. The Geneva II conference just ended in failure. There seems to be increased international meddling in the rebellion, with different states focusing on different groups and different areas of Syria, while injecting new weapons to punish Assad for Geneva’s failure. It is worth noting the prominent role of Saudi-backed opposition figures in Idris’s ouster.
On Thursday, the ex-Baathist former minister of agriculture Assad Mustafa, a Saudi favorite who now serves as minister of defense in the opposition’s exile government, suddenly submitted his resignation. Mustafa complained about the opposition’s participation in Geneva II, but an SMC spokesperson has confirmed to me that he also demanded Idris’s removal. Just as the decision to remove Idris was made, it was announced that Mustafa will remain minister of defense.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Western-endorsed exile opposition’s National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Saudi-backed tribal sheikh by the name of Ahmad al-Jarba, made a rare visit to Syrian soil. Formally, this was to honor a fallen rebel commander, but Jarba was accompanied on his trip by Maarouf of the SRF. One can safely assume that Idris’s future as SMC leader was among the subjects discussed by the two men.
Still, a Role for the Islamic Front?
According to sources talking to Kulluna Shuraka, a widely read Syrian opposition website, representatives of the Islamic Front took part in the SMC meeting—even though they claim to have cut ties to the SMC. Kulluna Shuraka’s sources say that the Islamic Front factions supported Idris’s removal, but the Salafi group known as Ahrar al-Sham and another unnamed Islamic Front faction both refused to vote for the SRF’s Afeisi as deputy SMC leader.
It’s hard to tell whether there’s any truth to this. Even though Kulluna Shuraka has broken many stories, the site is not known for diligent fact checking. But the alleged written decision from the meeting does include the signature of at least one Islamic Front member: Abderrahman Soweiss, the military head of the Homs-based Haqq Brigade.
U.S. Support for Idris
Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, an SMC member aligned with the SRF, told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news outlet that the decision to depose Idris was a result of the Islamic Front’s Bab al-Hawa power grab in December 2013. He condemns Idris’s handling of that affair and says it was the point at which the SMC commanders began to rebel against their chief of staff.
Saadeddine says that the U.S. government has tried to force the SMC to retain Idris and that “certain parties” have threatened to cut support if he were removed. But according to Saadedine, there is consensus backing for Idris’s removal, and he claims that Mustafa will now launch a “comprehensive plan” to rebuild the opposition.
A Fresh Start or a Divisive Coup?
Soon thereafter, the National Coalition of Ahmad al-Jarba “welcomed” the decision to install Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi as the new SMC leader. However, the SMC decision was not a unanimous one. Rather, it seems to signal a split within the SMC, with Idris still able to rely on some support among SMC leaders and perhaps from foreign states. The journalist Zaid Benjamin has interviewed Mohammed al-Abboud, the SMC’s top commander in eastern Syria. He describes Idris’s dismissal as invalid and claims that the SMC has fallen victim to “a Baathist coup” led by Mustafa, Jarba, and Maarouf. He promises to challenge the decision: “When Lieutenant General Salim returns we will gather and issue a statement on what happened.”
What exactly triggered the rebellion against Idris at this time and in this way remains a mystery for the moment, although it seems increasingly likely that there is a link to the royal family in Riyadh. It will take some time until we know if this is the beginning of a reinvigorated SMC, under new leadership and supported by a new wave of foreign funding—or if it will simply split rebel ranks further and bring an already weak organization closer to its end.