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Leadership crisis in the Free Syrian Army

The recent dismissal of the head of the opposition Free Syrian Army has caused fresh divisions

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

The recent dismissal of the head of the opposition Free Syrian Army has caused fresh divisions which may be deeply damaging and difficult to overcome. The Supreme Military Council removed Salim Idriss from his post - which he took up in Dec. 2012 after defecting as a general from the government army - citing “the difficulties faced by the Syrian revolution” against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

However, Idriss has condemned and rejected his dismissal, and regional unit commanders have pledged their loyalty to him. Fateh Hassoun, FSA commander for central Syria, described the dismissal as “null and illegitimate,” adding: “No group that’s not present on the country’s soil has the right to take a crucial decision that doesn’t represent the views of the forces working on the ground.”

One of the reasons for the commanders’ rejection of Idriss’s dismissal is that they were not consulted. This was a careless and needless oversight by the Council, irrespective of whether he deserves to remain in his post. This has been the subject of much debate for some time, with the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s defense minister, Asa’ad Mustafa, saying in December that Idriss had “failed” in his job.

The FSA is already struggling to remain effective and relevant amidst stronger Islamist rebel groups and an emboldened Assad

Sharif Nashashibi

Regardless, the views of those actually doing the fighting is paramount, and without their approval, the dismissal cannot effectively be implemented. This may create dangerous splits and exacerbate existing ones, not just within the FSA, but more widely between the opposition abroad and that in Syria.

The FSA is already struggling to remain effective and relevant amidst stronger Islamist rebel groups and an emboldened Assad. The fallout over Idriss’s removal will only add to its considerable troubles.

Its foreign allies may become even more reluctant to give material, financial and diplomatic backing to a fractured force that now has an open leadership conflict. Such support has always been woefully lacking anyway. The issue may jeopardize the delivery of light arms until September that was last week reported to have been “secretly” approved by the U.S. Congress.

Timing

The timing of this saga is particularly damaging. The FSA is not just fighting Assad’s forces and those of his foreign allies, but is now engaging in open warfare against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a militant group so extreme that it has been disavowed by Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, Assad is benefitting greatly from a surge in support from his allies.

It was reported last week that Iran is providing him with elite teams of hundreds of military specialists - including those from the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - to gather intelligence and train troops. Meanwhile, the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, whose troops have been pivotal to securing successes for the Assad regime, has vowed to “win this battle.”

The split caused by Idriss’s dismissal might be difficult to reconcile. Either he remains out in the cold and field commanders refuse to follow his appointed replacement Abdullah al-Bashir, or Idriss is reinstated to the anger of Bashir and his supporters. Either way, the damage is done - the question is whether it is fatal for the FSA in the long term, and to what extent this damages the wider uprising against Assad.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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