DOHA, Qatar -- With Syrian rebels slowly gaining ground against the military forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and jihadist elements seemingly gaining ground within the rebel movement, the time seemed ripe to Syria’s most senior military defector for creating a rebel military command that would use Western-supplied arms and supplies to woo the disparate opposition fighters to accept a central authority.
That’s what former Maj. Gen. Mohammed Haj Ali proposed in mid-September when he met with American military and political experts at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan.
“Their response was positive and very appreciative,” Ali told McClatchy. “They told me they’d be back to me quickly.”
Two months later, he’s still waiting. There’s been no comment, no communication or follow-up of any kind, he said.
That silence underscores the frustration that anti-Assad military leaders say they have with the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to the anti-Assad rebel movement. To be sure, some cash is flowing to the rebels, as are some small arms. But no one, Ali said in a series of interviews in Istanbul and in Doha, Qatar, “is helping us to unify the military.”
Ali, who’d headed Syria’s national defense college in Damascus, escaped to Jordan in mid-August with some 200 members of his extended family.
His plan, which he said had the support of other defected officers and some rebel commanders in Syria, is a simple structure that would establish central control over the many rebel groups in Syria through the flow of arms, ammunition and logistics. It would establish commanders and sub-commanders in each of Syria’s 14 provinces and divide the country into two broader commands.
At the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., officials didn’t dispute that they’d met with Ali. Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Centcom, “is able to meet with a wide variety of interested parties on a number of issues,” public affairs officer Oscar P. Seara said when he was asked about a meeting of top Centcom officers with Ali. “He maintains the confidentiality of any of the meetings he has.”
The Obama administration dispatched a high-powered team, including Beth Jones, an assistant secretary of state, and Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, to Doha, Qatar, to monitor meetings of the Syrian civilian opposition with an aim of consolidating Assad’s political opponents into a single, far more effective organization.
Neither Jones nor Ford would comment about whether they’d met with Ali or what the U.S. government thought of his plan. “We have nothing for you on that,” spokesman Daniel J. Ernst told McClatchy by email.
Ali acknowledged that American officials and others are right to be concerned that Islamist extremists could become the dominant force in the opposition and seek armed confrontation with Syria’s Christians, most of whom have been sitting out the uprising, and Alawites, the Muslim sect that includes the Assads and has dominated the country for four decades.
Christians and Alawites each compose as much as 10 percent of Syria’s population.
So how can leaders of the armed resistance provide assurance that weapons would get to the right place? Ali was asked.
“That is why we are seeking a military organization to stop and control these volunteer jihadists,” Ali said. “Our main hope is to keep security in Syria and to avoid sectarian war. We are looking to establish an organization to keep the country together.”