Idriss said his group didn’t work with al Qaida-affiliated rebels who belonged to the Nusra Front. But he said the military councils worked closely with another Islamist rebel faction, Arhar al Sham, that’s known to coordinate its actions with Nusra and shares many of Nusra’s beliefs about how Syria should be governed if Assad is vanquished.
Overall, Idriss’ assessment of the rebel movement suggests that it’s still in its infancy, far from a military force that could topple the government soon. He spoke of a need to combine small units into larger ones, to build a force that can take control of vast cities such as Damascus.
“The battles are not so simple now,” he said. “At the beginning of the revolution, they had to fight against a checkpoint. They had to fight against a small group of the army. Now they have to liberate an air base. Now they have to liberate a military school. Small units can’t do that alone, and now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult.”
Compared with Syria’s hard-bitten rural and often religious rebels, the clean-cut, English-speaking Idriss seems a rather unlikely leader.
Though a general in the military, he was teaching at a military college in Aleppo when he defected last July, and he said he’d like to return to teaching when the war ends.
On the recent Friday that he sat down for an interview in southern Turkey, a reporter picked him up at his offices and drove him to a restaurant. He was accompanied by no aides or security forces, despite the fact that Syrian government loyalists have attacked and kidnapped opposition figures based in the area.
Unlike other defected officers who’ve previously laid claim to rebel leadership, Idriss spends most of his time in Syria. Rebel commanders in Syria who’ve pledged to work with him say they have yet to see benefits beyond nonlethal aid.
On Monday in Heesh, an empty and badly damaged city in northern Syria where the government recently broke the months-long siege of Wadi al Deif, a strategic army base on the country’s main north-south highway, the dynamics Idriss described were on display, as well as the aid the U.S has provided thus far: communications equipment, food and body armor. As the crash of an incoming artillery shell split the air, they asked whether such support was a joke.
“We need weapons,” said Hajj Saleh, a former primary school teacher who’s in command of the rebels here. “The Americans just want us to die slowly.”
Idriss himself was more diplomatic.
The Americans “say we need to know if you are an organization and you can distribute and handle support and if you can keep order in the country when the regime falls and you can protect the minorities,” Idriss said, referring to fears that the rebels, who virtually all hail from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, would take revenge against minorities in the country, particularly Alawites, who practice a religion related to Shiite Islam and make up about 10 percent of the Syria’s population. Under Assad, an Alawite, Sunnis have complained of discrimination.
Idriss, however, plays down the importance of Sunni extremists such as Nusra within the rebel movement, saying most Syrians aren’t comfortable with them.
“We in Syria are not extremists, and we don’t like to see any kind of extremism in our country, now and in the future. And when someone comes to us to say we don’t accept minorities, we don’t agree with this idea,” he said.
Splits also have emerged among the rebels who don’t claim to be part of the military council, and a number seem to be hedging their bets. Ahrar al Sham, a network of fighters that has battalions across most of the country, is an affiliate of both Idriss’ council and the Syrian Islamic Front, a collection of similarly minded groups. Like Nusra, Sham calls for an Islamic state, but the group’s leadership has roundly rejected Nusra’s allegiance to al Qaida.
Idriss made a distinction between Ahrar al Sham and Nusra when he discussed how much of the country his forces control.
“We in the Free Syrian Army don’t see any difference between the Free Syrian Army and the groups that are working under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army,” Idriss said, using the name many of the rebels employ to refer to themselves. “When Nusra is in control of an area, we don’t say it is under our control. But when Ahrar al Sham is in control of an area, we say it is under our control.”