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Saudi-Qatari rivalry deepens divisions in Syria opposition

Ahmad Jarba (L) and General Salim Idris hold a press conference on August 24, 2013 in Istanbul

Local Editor

The so-called Free Syrian Army has sacked its leader after he fell out with the Saudi-supported head of the opposition to President Bashar Assad, opposition sources say.

General Salim Idriss, whose relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated after he opened channels with Qatar, was replaced by Brig. Gen. Abdellah Bashir, the head of FSA operations in Qunaitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the sources said on Monday.

Bashir assumes leadership of a force trying to regain the initiative from rival and better-organized terrorist groups that have overshadowed it in fighting against the Syrian government.

A statement signed by 22 of the FSA’s 30-member Supreme Military Council said the decision was prompted by “the ineffectiveness of the command in the past few months … and to provide leadership for military operations against” the Syrian government and its allies.

A statement by the so-called Syrian National Coalition, which includes 15 members of the FSA, said news of Bashir’s appointment came as a “relief.”

Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure close to Saudi Arabia, became president of the coalition last July after an expansion last year that diluted the influence of Qatari-backed members.

“Idriss appears to have gotten too close to the Qataris, prompting Jarba to move against him,” one of the opposition sources said.

Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, main backers of the Syrian government, has deepened divisions in the opposition. It has also strengthened President Assad as his government talks with the SNC at US-and Russian-sponsored negotiations in Geneva.

The coalition’s delegation added several FSA commanders to its negotiating team in the second round of peace talks, which concluded on the weekend without little result.

The announcement to remove Idriss, who had served in the Corps of Engineers of the Syrian army, was made Sunday after an SMC meeting in Turkey attended by Asaad Mustafa, the self-declared defense minister in a provisional government set up by the opposition last year, the sources said.

Mustafa, whose ties with Idriss have been tense, indicated last week to members of the provisional government he intended to resign. He changed his mind after receiving backing from Jarba, an official in the opposition government said.

Idriss was visiting the United Arab Emirates when he learned of his sacking, the sources said. He still has supporters in the SMC and could try to contest the decision with their help.

Dissident militants have long been wary of accepting Idriss, who has spent most of his time outside Syria since being chosen as a consensus figure to lead the Supreme Military Council set up with Arab and Western backing in December 2012.

But a diplomat based in the Middle East said Bashir was a relative unknown who was unlikely to solve divisions within the FSA. “Idriss’ supporters are not going to take his sacking sitting down. The only reason Bashir was appointed is that he is close to Jarba,” the diplomat said.

A spokesman for the SMC, which oversees the FSA, said the turning point came when Al-Qaeda-linked militants tried to seize warehouses belonging to the group near the Turkish border in December, leading to the facilities’ takeover by militias from the Islamic Front.

The raid prompted a cutoff of Western supplies to the FSA militants, leaving the insurgents without arms and scattering weakened opposition forces.

“We waited three months after the assault and seizure of the [warehouse],” spokesman Col. Qassem Saadeddine told Al-Arabiya TV.

“But the situation only became worse. There began to be divisions in the armed opposition. There was no military leadership. The military leadership was scattered, each leader of a brigade worked alone,” he said.

The spokesman said other council members were outraged when Idriss did not publicly blame the rival rebels for the theft. “[The militants] did not return a single weapon, and he [Idriss] did not do a thing. All the officers went to their tents and the warehouses were empty, and nothing remained of the FSA.”

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