On February 16, a controversial decision was made by leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the nebulous network of Western- and Gulf-backed rebel groups in Syria. On that day, the FSA’s Supreme Military Council announced that it had voted to replace the head of its General Staff, Lieutenant General Salim Idris, with a little-known commander from southern Syria, Brigadier General Abdel-Ilah Bashir al-Nuaymi. But hours later, supporters of Idris had begun to protest and declare his ousting a “coup”—and soon, two camps had crystallized, both claiming to represent the real leadership of the FSA.
To understand this dispute, which is at the heart of the Western- and Gulf-backed Syrian opposition, it is necessary to first gain an understanding of the different factions and institutions involved.
Mapping the FSA Institutions
The “Free Syrian Army” name has been used to mean many things over the past three years, by journalists, researchers, opposition members, and self-designated FSA leaders—rarely with any great precision. Here, it will refer to the network of rebel groups and funding channels that has been officially endorsed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, France, and other governments, and particularly to the FSA leadership formed at a conference in Antalya, Turkey, on December 11, 2012. (A full list of the persons elected at that meeting can be found here, but please note that several have since defected or died.)
The formal name announced by the Antalya group was the General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces, but since this was considered too unwieldy for the media and too confusing for audiences, many editors settled for simply calling it “the FSA.” But in order to distinguish the Antalya group from previous attempts at creating a supreme FSA leadership, other reporters and analysts took to calling it the “Supreme Military Council,” or SMC. That is the name that has been used on this site until now—as well as, confusingly, by the group’s own English-language media wing.
However, the Supreme Military Council, which is also known in opposition jargon as the Council of Thirty (because it originally had thirty members), was in fact only one of the institutions formed at the December 2012 conference. That distinction is important to what will follow.
The council’s role was to lay down ground rules for the FSA organization, draw up political goals, and appoint commanders to an executive General Staff that would handle day-to-day work relating to the arming and funding of sympathetic rebel units. Indeed, the council’s first decision in December 2012 was to name Lieutenant General Salim Idris as leader of this General Staff, flanked by a number of regional deputies. Idris and his men controlled media operations and helped distribute foreign supplies to the rebels and therefore drew the media spotlight. As an institution, the council itself mostly remained in the background, although some of its leaders were also high-profile rebel commanders.
Relations to the Civilian Exile Opposition
Later, this entire FSA structure was attached to the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a body of exiled politicians supported by the same group of states, in the hope that the two could function as civilian and military wings of a unified opposition. In November 2013, the National Coalition elected a Turkey-based interim government, with a Ministry of Defense designed to gradually envelop the FSA.
As per a previous agreement, the FSA leadership elected in Antalya a year earlier would have a say over who assumed the positions of ministers of interior and defense in this government. After internal deliberations and—as always—under foreign pressure, Idris and the FSA General Staff apparently sought to install the human rights activist Ammar al-Qurabi as minister of interior and the civilian regime defector Assad Mustafa as minister of defense. Qurabi was voted out by the National Coalition, but Mustafa was approved as minister of defense. As a temporary measure, he was also handed the unfilled interior portfolio.
In his role as minister of defense, Mustafa would thereafter chair the Council meetings even while Idris remained as head of the General Staff. It soon became clear that the two men didn’t see eye to eye. Idris also began to run into trouble with Ahmad al-Jarba, the National Coalition’s president. Idris resisted Mustafa’s and Jarba’s plan to reorganize the FSA and was publicly critical of the idea of reorganizing the FSA into a “Free National Army,” which Jarba had launched in summer 2013.
With uncoordinated streams of Gulf money pouring into the armed rebellion and new coalitions beginning to form both inside and outside of the agreed-upon structure, the strains inside the opposition leadership grew.
Council Versus General Staff
In late 2013, after conflict between rebels at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the splits in the FSA apparatus began to widen. Rival camps were now forming around Idris and Mustafa, with the latter tacitly backed both by Jarba and by Jamal Maarouf’s Syria Revolutionaries Front, a new Saudi-funded movement within the FSA (Maarouf himself has been on the council since its formation). Idris has since said he felt that Mustafa was conspiring to oust him. In February, the conflict was brought to a head when Mustafa filed a letter of resignation, reportedly having decided that either he or Idris must go.
A split then occurred roughly along the institutional lines described above. On February 16, the council convened without informing Idris and voted to replace him with Abdel-Ilah Bashir al-Nuaymi, with Maarouf’s signature right at the top of the list of votes for the leadership change. The vote was also endorsed by Mustafa (who withdrew his resignation) and Jarba.
But not everyone agreed. Idris’s deputies on the FSA General Staff, as well as some of the military councils set up as part of the FSA apparatus inside Syria to distribute money and weapons, refused to comply with this decision. They instead issued a statement saying they would continue to back Idris, who in turn lashed out at Mustafa and Jarba, calling the latter a “dictator.” He then joined his supporters in a meeting that concluded that they would collectively break off relations to the FSA council and the National Coalition government’s ministry of defense
The confusion soon turned to embarrassment, as both sides insisted that they represented the only legitimate leadership of the FSA, thereby ripping apart an already ineffectual military leadership. Within a week, the New York Times had got hold of Abdel-Ilah Bashir, who appeared just as puzzled as everyone else. “I swear to God, no one was in touch with me,” he said about the decision to appoint him commander of Syria’s revolution. “I knew nothing about it.”
Such disarray in the rebel leadership threatens to complicate Western and Gulf strategies for Syria. It is possible that a firm decision from the opposition’s foreign funders will soon put an end to the dispute. But so far all attempts at reconciling the rival camps have failed—perhaps because foreign influence is actually what is pulling them apart.
More on that tomorrow.