Former head of moderate Syrian rebels rejects his dismissal, cuts ties with political leaders

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, file photo, Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July, speaks during an interview in Antakya, Turkey. Idris the former leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition’s military wing on Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014. rejected his recent dismissal, and along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the notoriously divided rebel movement.(AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

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By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The former leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition's military wing on Wednesday rejected his recent dismissal, and along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the notoriously divided rebel movement.

The statement from Gen. Salim Idris comes two days after the opposition Syrian National Coalition announced that Idris had been sacked as head of the Supreme Military Council and replaced by Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir — an experienced, moderate field commander from southern Syria. The move was widely seen as an attempt to restructure the military council and to persuade Western allies to boost their support for mainstream rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.

Moderate opposition fighters have been eclipsed over the past year by ultraconservative Islamic groups and extremist factions that have emerged as the most powerful brigades on the rebel side.

But the move also holds the potential to further fracture rebel ranks and sap what little strength the military council currently has.

In a video posted online Wednesday, Idris said that after consulting with forces inside Syria, he and the 15 other signatories of the statement were breaking ties with the council and the opposition's political leadership.

"We stress that all that emanates from them does not concern us in any way," he said, reading from the statement.

Sitting at the head of a table and flanked by men dressed in fatigues, Idris said he has been asked to overhaul the rebel military leadership, and called on all rebel forces on the ground to rally under his command. He also accused some members of the political and military opposition of making decisions based on "individual and personal interests."

Most of the other men in the video could not be immediately identified, but among the statement's signatories were regional front commanders.

It was not clear what impact Idris' break with the council and the political opposition abroad would have, or whether the rift caused by the general's dismissal could be mended.

But the Coalition sought to head off any dispute over the council's leadership, issuing a statement late Wednesday reaffirming al-Bashir's appointment. It also confirmed that al-Bashir was assuming his new duties immediately.

Still, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, described Idris' move as a potentially significant development.

"He appears to enjoy the support of a wide range of senior commanders whose zones of command cross Syria," Lister said by email. "Until the dust settles, this essentially leaves Syria with two military opposition councils," — one under Idris and another al-Bashir.

And the longer the division continues, he said, "the more dangerous it could be for the long-term viability of the SMC."

Idris was named the head of the Supreme Military Council shortly after it was formed in late 2012. During his time in command, Idris, a secular-leaning moderate, was criticized by many in the opposition for being ineffective and lost the confidence of the U.S. and its allies, particularly after Islamic extremists seized a weapons depot from moderate rebels.

Washington and its European allies have long tried to mold the Council's Free Syrian Army into an effective partner inside Syria. But the loose umbrella group was always seen as weak, with Western and Arab allies dithering over whether to give them powerful weapons. The group eventually fell into disarray and in the past year has been overshadowed by more powerful Islamic groups and the rise of al-Qaida-inspired extremist factions.

Inside Syria, meanwhile, an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said aid workers have evacuated 11 more people, mostly Christians, from besieged areas in the central city of Homs.