December 12, 2013
The top Western-backed commander of the opposition forces in Syria has been run out of the country by Islamist militants, US officials said Wednesday.
According to US officials cited by the Wall Street Journal, Free Syrian Army General Salim Idris was forced to take flight.
This comes after the US and Britain announced Wednesday that they was freezing non-lethal aid to the opposition after radical militants from the Islamic Front took control of the Free Syrian Army’s bases in northern Syria.
Gen. Idris fled to Doha, Qatar on Sunday after leaving Syria for Turkey, US officials said Wednesday.
“He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters,” a senior US official said.
The Islamic Front is a coalition of the largest Islamist rebel factions, excluding two top Al-Qaeda-associated groups, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. It is considered more moderate among Islamist militant groups.
A spokesman for the Islamic Front also confirmed that Gen. Idris had left Syria for Turkey.
On Friday, radical militants from the Islamic Front seized several premises containing non-lethal aid from the US. The aid belonged to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army at the Bab al-Hawa crossing near the Turkish border, Reuters reported.
The Islamists acting on their own accord gave no warnings and provided no explanation.
“As a result of this situation, the United States has suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria,” the US Embassy spokesman in Ankara said on Wednesday, stressing that humanitarian aid distributed through non-governmental organizations will not be impacted by the decision.
The growing strength of the Islamic Front has led to direct talks between the group and the US and its allies. Western officials said the goal of the communication was to persuade Islamists to support a Syria peace conference to take place in Geneva on Jan. 22.
As the Obama administration sorts through details of the takeover of FSA bases, it is urging Gen. Idris to return to Syria, US officials said.
Senior US officials said the warehouses seized by the Islamic Front appeared to contain both lethal and non-lethal material. A CIA spokesperson would not comment on whether American weapons, possibly supplied by the CIA, were involved. Gen. Idris reportedly receives weapons from other sources as well, such as Saudi Arabia.
US officials said the Islamic Front offered to protect Gen. Idris’ headquarters and the warehouse facilities from more extreme groups. Once they secured the area, “they asserted themselves and said: ‘All right, we’re taking over,’ ” a senior official said.
The officials said there was no battle over the warehouses between the Islamic Front and the SMC. One senior US official called the seizure “an internal coup,” though other officials disputed the characterization.
“I wouldn’t say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris,” a senior US official told WSJ.
The Obama administration said earlier Wednesday that it would like to work with the SMC, though the suspension of aid is indefinite. How the takeover will affect relations with the Islamic Front is still unclear.
The British government followed the US in suspending assistance to the SMC to ensure it would not be acquired by more extreme Islamist factions.
A White House spokesman said that US humanitarian assistance is not affected by the suspension.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while the US remains supportive of the SMC, the halted aid will make cooperation more challenging.
This article was posted: Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 6:05 am