BEIRUT:The Western-backed Free Syrian Army has appointed a new military chief, opposition groups announced Monday as they try to restructure a rebel movement that has fallen into disarray as it faces rampant infighting and declining international support for its fight to topple President Bashar Assad.
Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir replaces Gen. Salim Idris, who was criticized by many in the opposition for being ineffective and lost the confidence of the U.S. and its allies particularly after Islamic extremists seized a weapons depot from moderate rebels. The move was announced Monday in a statement by the FSA’s Supreme Military Council.
Al-Bashir, who previously headed the group’s operations in the province of Quneitra on the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is considered a moderate Islamist. In speeches, he has said he supports a democratic Syria but also cites heavily from the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
His appointment, which was made by consensus among the FSA’s 30-member military council late Sunday, is seen as part of attempts to revamp and restructure the Free Syrian Army after a series of embarrassing setbacks and to try to convince the West to provide more powerful weaponry. It also seeks to show rival rebels that the group is re-energizing with a new, credible leadership.
The FSA — a loose coalition of mainstream rebel groups — has seen its influence sharply wane and has suffered a series of setbacks in the past year, including an embarrassing raid on its weapons warehouse by Islamic extremists last year, which led to a temporary suspension of U.S. non-lethal aid to the rebels. The FSA has been further weakened in the past few months by deadly infighting with an al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The moderate opposition hopes to show that the coalition is strengthening the drifting, chaotic and ever-weakening groups that comprise the coalition. Western donors have refrained from providing weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of hard-line militants.
Al-Bashir is a respected commander involved in day-to-day fighting, whose son was killed fighting on the side of the rebels last year. His appointment sends a two-pronged message, said analysts and rebels.