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Plan to overhaul Syria opposition forces stirs dissent

Published: Updated:

A call by Syria’s opposition chief Ahmed Jarba to restructure opposition forces into a National Army has stirred rage among jihadists, and even criticism among his ranks.

The plan will reportedly retain General Selim Idriss, the current head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a force made up of army defectors and civilians who took up arms against President Bashar al-Assad.

In an interview on Monday, Jarba said the new force was needed to combat elite fighters loyal to Assad’s regime and to form the backbone of a future army.

“We need this army so that it becomes the foundation of a new army, that has air defence capabilities... tanks, logistical support, medical units,” said the head of the National Coalition.

In more than two years of fighting, Syria’s opposition forces have gone from a rag-tag force tasked with protecting demonstrators from regime crackdowns to a diverse group of civilians who have taken up arms and defectors from the military.

Competition for scarce resources and divergent ideologies have made organizing the ranks difficult, and the mainstream group has been threatened by the growing influence of better-armed jihadists.

Hadi al-Bahra, a Coalition member close to Jarba, said the plan was to “improve the FSA’s structure, performance, discipline and communication between factions.”

He also acknowledged the need to combat “extremist thinking,” an apparent reference to jihadists who want to create an Islamic caliphate.

“There needs to be a clear and total rejection of any extremist thinking, and of any action that harms civilians, and any targeting of civilians on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation,” Bahra said.

Lashing out against the ineffectiveness of the foreign-based National Coalition, many dismiss the proposed new force as an irrelevant project unlikely to bear fruit.

For their part, the jihadists have labeled it a Saudi and Western plan to turn Syria’s opposition forces into an anti-Al-Qaeda fighting force similar to the US-funded “Sahwa” Awakening Councils that battled the group in Iraq from 2006.

“We stand together to bring down the Sahwa project,” wrote one subscriber on a jihadist Internet forum, describing Jarba and Idriss as “traitors to the Levant and Islam.”

Others see the National Army plan as a bid to convince the West to funnel weapons directly to the opposition forces, by building a more coherent force clearly separate from the jihadists.

But it remains unclear how successful any reorganization would be, with analysts pointing out the effort would be the latest in a string of bids to unify and streamline the opposition forces.

“Wasn’t it Einstein who said that it would be insanity to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results?” asked Aron Lund, an expert on the Syrian uprising and Islamist movements.

The conflict has become so localized that it will be difficult to reorganize the opposition forces, dividing moderates from extremists, he said.

“Many of the biggest groups aligned with Selim Idriss, groups like Liwa al-Tawhid, have said they may not share the ideology of the (Al-Qaeda affiliate) Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but that they are also not interested in fighting them,” Lund told AFP.

And groups not aligned with Idriss have already dismissed the idea.

A member of the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham faction blasted the proposal as a Western and Saudi non-starter.

Idriss’ “general command has proven itself a failure on the ground,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“Everyone deals with them as a way to get ammunition and weapons, and when things get serious, no one listens to them,” he said.

Other critics, including activists opposed to both jihadists and the Coalition, also dismiss the restructuring as badly timed and a diversion from the uprising’s chief goal: bringing down Assad.

Many also see the plan as a result of the rising sway of Saudi Arabia, which backed Jarba’s recent election to head the Coalition, winning influence previously held by Turkey and Qatar.

In a meeting last week with key Assad backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan said that “whatever regime comes after” Assad, it will be “completely” in the Saudis’ hands.

Criticism has come from inside the Coalition too, with one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisting “this (National Army) idea is dangerous, and it will not work.”

“We should not be fighting the extremists now. We need to focus on fighting the regime.”