But how Ford’s pledge could be fulfilled is unclear, with growing difficulties in getting equipment to the moderates now that al Qaida-aligned groups control key border crossings and with increasing number of rebel units publicly disavowing any connection to the Supreme Military Command.
Fighters and observers of the conflict say the chief motivations for the shift away from the Supreme Military Command are frustration with the U.S. government’s slow delivery of promised combat equipment and President Barack Obama’s decision not to launch missile strikes against the Assad regime in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack.
Another main issue was the attempted takeover of the rebel movement by al Qaida’s Syria branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, better known by the acronym ISIS. Most of the rebel groups, even fellow Islamists, decry that group’s extremist ideology and merciless dealings with local communities.
ISIS has been engaged in fierce gunfights with more moderate rebels, who out of concern that the Supreme Military Command isn’t up to the fight are turning to the other al Qaida affiliate in the Syrian conflict, Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front. Despite its U.S. designation as a terrorist organization, many now consider Nusra closer to the mainstream because of its own rivalries with ISIS.
“In comparison to ISIS – the Syria Iraq al Qaida group – al Nusra, well, they look moderate,” Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international coordination, humanitarian aid and crisis response, said Friday at a Syria talk at the New America Foundation in Washington.
In addition, there was festering disdain for the Syrian Opposition Council, the political opposition that, ostensibly at least, oversees the Supreme Military Command. The political opposition members are derided as exiles and “hotel revolutionaries,” though until now there had been higher regard for Idriss and his men because of their service in combat.
But now, the Supreme Military Command, too, is fast becoming irrelevant, along with its dream of a moderate, professional force that abides by international norms on human rights and rules of war.
“Now, more than ever, the United States can get behind the SMC to prevent this from taking hold,” Dan Layman, spokesman for the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, a pro-rebel fundraising group, said of the new Islamist alliances. “At the end of the day it’s going to be about supplies: Who can support the fighters?”
Aymenn al Tamimi, a fellow with the Middle East Forum, a conservative research center in Philadelphia, and a monitor of jihadist activity in Syria and Iraq, said that Idriss and his command were good at making pledges but couldn’t back up their words because of a lack of resources.
“I think Idriss had some sway over certain rebel groups in the Damascus area and points south, but a lot of his gestures of being in touch with forces on the ground were only superficially impressive,” Tamimi said.
For example, Tamimi said, Idriss paid a visit to the coastal area of Latakia in a time of fighting, prompting some rebels to rejoice in what they perceived as the Free Syrian Army’s advance.
“On the contrary, as my own research on both sides shows, the Latakia offensive was primarily led by battalions of foreign fighters, and the sole purpose of it was to score a symbolic victory through ethnic cleansing of Alawites,” Tamimi said.
That offensive was the subject of a scathing Human Rights Watch report on Friday that accused the rebels, led by ISIS, Nusra and three other groups, of killing scores of civilians and kidnapping at least 200 more who are still being held hostage.
The report said it had no evidence that troops reporting to Idriss had had a direct hand in the atrocities. But it said Idriss’ assertion that Supreme Military Command-allied units had taken part in the offensive should be examined, and it urged the Supreme Military Command to cease any cooperation with the Islamist groups.