Despite his impressive title, General Salim Idris, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), may well have an impossible job. As a collection of different fighting groups with their own needs, leaders and agendas, the FSA may well be impossible to command in the conventional sense. This is to say nothing of the fact that its members are fighting a guerrilla war against a ruthless and well-equipped enemy with an air force, tanks, and artillery.
A recent declaration by several groups that they were breaking away to form an “Islamic Alliance,” separate from the FSA, has cast a spotlight on the divisions within the organization and the difficulties faced by those trying to keep it united and focused on common objectives, including its titular leaders. It also raised questions on whether its leaders, based in Turkey, can effectively represent the fighters on the front lines in Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Idris, a former Brigadier-General in the Syrian Army before his defection to the rebels in July of last year, about the current state of the FSA, the reasons behind its long-standing problems, and its lethal rivalry with groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as the peace conference expected to take place in Geneva in November.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Despite the fact that you are a soldier, you are now working on both political and military issues. How did you get to this point?
Salim Idris: As you know, several meetings were held between leaders of fronts and the leaders of councils in the Supreme Opposition Council to review the situation on the ground, in respect to the difficulties and problems we face in fighting against the regime. A meeting of the expanded leadership was also held and attended by the President of the National Coalition [Ahmed Al-Jarba]. The meeting considered the political situation and the tour the Coalition chairman took of the United States and other friendly countries. The conference also explored the efforts made to secure support for the revolution both politically and militarily.
It is clear that there are developments in the coming stage that must be analyzed. The most important of these developments are the Geneva conference, the future government that will be formed, and the identity of president of that government. Of course all of these things were discussed candidly, sincerely, and transparently. We also reviewed all of the developments and circumstances surrounding the tasks ahead of us for our brothers in the Coalition, for the military council, and for the military forces on the ground.
Q: Can you discuss any of the specific results of the conference?
Certainly, notably related to the work we did in laying a foundation for clear, all-inclusive action regarding the subject of arms and the processes of their distribution.
Q: But didn’t you say that some of the reports of the meeting were not representative of what was said?
Leaders of other fronts always participate in drawing up plans for military operations and this leadership meeting has a significant and positive impact on our internal work on the next phase. But there are some groups working to sabotage the institutions of the Syrian revolution. They do not want to see the presence of an interim coalition government because they have their own goals. Therefore there are unfair campaigns both against the Coalition and the Chief of Staff.
There were also false allegations from people who were trying to take quotes from the meetings out of context. When it was revealed that these attempts to abuse the Council were being distributed via email, those responsible were banned from the meetings. Of course this greatly disturbs those meetings. The main reason they are so pressing is that the accusations are being made from outside the country. There are well known objective conditions and justifications, so a meeting this size attended by leadership must provide ample security for the information that is shared. Although we hold many meetings within the country, those who accuse us are often located in other countries. These people are usually in neighboring countries and rarely return to Syria.
Q: Finally, there are many charges related to the council blocking the supply of arms. There is talk about tons of ammunition entering Syria that does not reach opposition fighters.
These accusations are part of the campaign to sabotage our troops. The saboteurs want to denigrate the soldiers and disrupt them through lies broadcast on the internet. Most of this news is not true. They say that the troops received 4,000 tons of ammunition. This is an extremely exaggerated figure!
We work as an institution that has front leaders and council leaders. We have five fronts led by our comrades. Wouldn’t the commanders be ashamed if they didn’t get the weapons they were promised? I think they would be the first people we would consult on how to handle the troops. Wouldn’t they be able to see what had arrived to the troops? How is ammunition and weaponry distributed? We have five front leaders and they have five deputies. We also have 15 military councils and every council has a leader. We also have the General Staff Department of 45 officers and our management arm which has more than 35 officers and civilians working in warehouses. All of those people are not capable of hiding the truth. But we only share our information internally. I do not think that we are required to publish information referenced in newspaper articles.
Q: Why is there no single entity that represents all opposition groups thus far?
Yes, there are some difficulties, most notably the lack of material resources necessary to create a unified body. To create this body, certain elements need to exist: first we must secure arms, ammunition, vehicles and all other logistics requirements. We will also need enough financial reserves to cover minimum salary payments, food, and fuel expenses.
The second point—and we must not hide this one—is that there are groups working on the ground who are not interested in a revolution against the current regime. They do not want to create a unified formation because, in all honesty, they have private goals: they all just want to be leaders themselves. Even among themselves they can’t decide. Each one of them wants to become the leader.
The disaster is that every one of them takes full credit for the revolution, thinks he should rule the country, and has a group of fighters with a cache of weapons. When analyzing any meetings and claims you must take into consideration what people want to get out of them. Much of what is said may seem to be true, but in fact is misleading. I haven’t been this frank before, but enough is enough. The institutions of this revolution are beginning to decay. Instead of accusing Assad as a criminal and exposing his crimes against his people, the saboteurs are working against those on the ground as though they are competing for leadership of the country.
Q: You are now the most powerful organization in the Syrian Revolution, in which you have participated since the beginning. What is the current strength of the FSA?
Great effort has been put into ensuring that our troops are well organized, especially in organizing the forces on the ground. Still, I do not pretend that we have come to an ideal state or condition and the reason for that is that our material resources are weak, including our armament.
This is what happens if you do not provide forces on the ground with arms and basic life necessities including food, drink, and a bit of pocket money. Unfortunately we simply do not have access to these things. Therefore the connection is weak and in order to ensure strong and solid hierarchical formations, we must also provide arms, ammunition, logistical support, and enough money. We call it “management, organization, and mobilization.” All military forces operating under the revolutionary councils have been documented, as have their weapons and ammunition. If you look at these records and documents you would pity us, because our potential is very weak. This is why people generally see our command and control capabilities as weak.
Q: How many fighters are there in the FSA?
Some say there are 200,000 fighters in the Syrian territories. I look at this number very critically. I think we have no more than 40,000 fighters armed with AK-47s. Of course there are some battalions and brigades that that have heavy weapons including tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and other types of medium to heavy gear. But when the ammunition runs out for these vehicles, they become blocks of iron. The T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks that the rebels have are mostly out of ammunition and have become a burden. Weapons that are available to the rebels are mainly small arms, medium machine guns, RPGs, and B10/B9 anti-tank guns.
Q: There is talk of other types of weapons, including Russian Konkurs anti-armor missiles.
There has been a lot of talk about other types of arms. Our troops are accused of using other types of weapons while we are accused of preventing thousands of tons of ammunition from reaching the troops. The fact is that our troops did not receive a single shoulder-mounted missile because there are tighter regulations on this type of missile.
As for the anti-tank weapons, we have not received a single Konkurs missile. Some groups may have gotten their hands on this type of weapon from government armories, but not our troops. We keep official records and all of our leadership is aware of the fact that we have not received any such missiles. There is another type of anti-tank weapon which we received, and we informed all of our front leaders of this development and sent them the weapons. We hope that the other two types of weapons are made available to us, and of course there are many other weapons we’d like that we wouldn’t even speak about because we consider their acquisition so unlikely.
Q: How would you summarize the current situation on the ground?
I’m always an optimist. The situation is good on the northern and eastern fronts, and going well, God willing, around the coast. Things are very good in the battle of Qadimoon in the countryside northeast of Hama. There our brothers wage fierce battles against the regime’s forces. In Homs we are under siege, and this is causing serious trouble. We are under severe pressure in the countryside outside of Damascus because the supply routes in Darya, Al-Maadamiya, and eastern Ghouta, among other sites, have been hit hard. The front by Dera’a is doing relatively well, operations are ongoing, and we’ve achieved some successes, in spite of all the difficulties and a shortage of munitions. And if we were able to neutralize the enemy’s air force, even in spite of his of rocket weaponry and long-range weapons, I think that the field would tilt in favor of the revolutionaries.
Q: After all that’s happened, do you still think that the regime can be brought down militarily?
We hope that the Syrian crisis is solved today. The revolutionaries are compelled to bear arms, because you remember the first beginnings of the revolution and how the security services, those criminals, were firing upon and killing people in the streets. Today, many say that we can’t bring down the regime, and the regime cannot crush the armed opposition, and so there must be peaceful solutions. The problem with this is that the regime is stubborn, and doesn’t want to put anything forward but lies. I think that the regime in Damascus will not leave power except by force. We know that Iran supports them, and that the “Party of Satan” [Lebanon’s “Party of God,” Hezbollah] supports them, and extremist fighters from Iraq are coming in great numbers, and are present in Aleppo.
None of this lessens our commitment at all. We know our capabilities, but yes, there are realities. Assad and his cohort will not give up power except by force, because they see the government as something belonging to their sect. At the beginning of the revolution one of them said to me that the government is an Alawite government, and they will burn Syria to the ground before they leave it. And who is helping them to do so? The Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, who claim that they stand for resistance and liberation in Lebanon, and was fooling the whole world.
The Syrian revolution has revealed their true nature, they aim to bring the region to ruin and realize Iran’s goals by establishing what they call the Shi’a Crescent. This will extend from Iran across Iraq and then to Syria and southern Lebanon, as a first step to controlling the region and bringing back the [Sassanid Empire]. We knew all this before the revolution, but we didn’t speak of it then. But now it is clear that Assad does not control a thing in Syria. Instead, there is an Iranian officer, Qassem Suleimani, who runs everything in the country. The Americans and the Russians and everyone know that Suleimani is the real ruler. Assad has become merely a puppet, there to reassure the faction who is with him.
Q: Will you give the political process a chance? There are now calls for a second meeting in Geneva.
I believe that the political process should be given a full opportunity. However, it must not be according to Russia’s dictates. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wants to name the opposition delegation, and he describes the opposition as terrorists and extremists. So get this, he wants the opposition party to prepare a so-called “internal opposition.” Who are they trying to lie to? I was a Brigadier-General in the Syrian army and I know all these lies, and how they are fabricated and how people are forced to say things contrary to the truth.
This false opposition is led by head of the National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk and the intelligence services, and they claim that it is an opposition. And then Lavrov kindly lets us know that the National Coalition is weak and doesn’t represent anyone on the ground. Just as now some crying voices from inside Syria now claim that this coalition doesn’t represent anyone. They want to weaken the role of the Coalition so that we’ll have four fractious delegations to go sit in front of the delegation of the criminal Assad, and fight over their differences. And they say to the world, look, this fractured opposition has no leader, these people will ruin Syria, and thus, they must not get anything.
Q: Are you trying to reassure the Syrian army’s leaders that they can lay down their arms safely?
We know the chain of command in the military hierarchy, how commands are issued, how they are implemented, and how people are forced to implement them. Some of the officers are criminals, they see themselves as kings. They are even more criminal than Assad, and they have no reassurances from us. We will bring them to justice. The officers at the middle or lower levels, many of them are simply carrying out orders and we can look into their situation to see which of them were involved in operations reported to the courts that will deal with them. However, if it is found that one of them has committed a crime, it is imperative that he receives punishment. As for the lower ranks, they can be dealt with by restructuring the army, after we confirm that they were not involved in any killing or bloodshed. There is no problem with that.
I hope that the killing can end today. Earlier in the conflict, remember, it was easier to treat wounds and perform operations. It is hard today, but imagine if the conflict continued five or ten years. You would not find anyone with clean hands, and reconciliation would be complex and impossible. Today when I see that what the criminal Assad and his cohort in Syria have done, I think it will take a century for the souls of Syrians to find peace.
Q: Will Syria remain united?
This issue is one rarely talked about. Look at the crimes of the regime in Syria, its murders and destruction and bloodshed. Assad will either remain Syria’s dictator, or he will divide it. The people in this country are plagued by a group of demons, they feel shame that something is remiss when their names are mentioned, when they see their grim faces. What did the Syrian people do, all of its many groups, sects, religions, and nationalities, to deserve Hafez Al-Assad and his son? This family says they will stay in charge of Syria’s affairs, enslaving the Syrian people, or they’ll burn Syria and divide it. This is a tragedy.
Q: There is another issue: the Islamists, and specifically, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Has conflict with them become inevitable?
This is no longer a secret to anyone. The FSA liberates some areas, then moves on to liberate other areas, and we have no fighters to stick around in the liberated areas. Then ISIS comes to put up barriers and prevent the FSA’s fighters from passing through. They declare control over these areas and they occupy the villages. They put pressure on the fighters there, and try to impose their will on the people, to subordinate them.
Look at this from the perspective of what the regime is trying to convince the world of. The regime says, “The rebels do not represent the Syrian people.” But the rebels are doctors, university students, Syrian officers, and others. They left everything, and everything they had was destroyed, they lost their dearest children and their family. The Syrian regime says do not fight us, and that those fighting the regime are a set of extremist foreigners who want to slaughter minorities. But look at things objectively and honestly, when these groups, like ISIS, come and execute a child in a public square, what message does this send to the world? Exactly the [same] message that Assad wants to send to the world.
The truth is that we in the FSA were and still are trying to stay away, even through our statements, from inflaming the issue, because we believe all should now be focused on fighting Assad. And I said repeatedly in front of the media, speaking to all, telling them to go ahead, fight the Assad regime. When this regime falls, the people will have revolted against a criminal dictator who enslaved the country over 50 years. These are the people who will decide the form of the state and system of government that they want, and we all must respect the will of the people. This is our mission, although if it is within our capabilities, we will not leave those who attack us in peace.
Q: But recently it has escalated to a direct conflict, and it seems that many expect that fighting will occur, that things must be settled with ISIS.
In recent days, statements were issued from several groups, such as the local council in Rastan. Their decision was clear: these groups have a short grace period, then they must leave the areas in and around Rastan. The strange thing is my brothers in the FSA tell me that as we liberate areas, ISIS wishes to control them. Is their goal to fight the regime? Did I did not hear one day that the regime attacked the ISIS headquarters, is this even up for debate? There is some very serious news about ISIS coordination with the regime and coordination with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). If the fighters with ISIS do not know all of this information, they must ask about it and familiarize themselves with it. Those who came to fight, whether from outside or from within the country, and joined ISIS, is your goal to liberate the country from this criminal regime, or is your goal to kill those who fight the regime?
Q: But there are official statements issued from them that say the opposite of this. They say that they are fighting and it is the FSA is settling down.
The battle of Qadimoon is one of the biggest battles going on right now—who is fighting that battle? There is not a single fighter from ISIS. And the battles which were fought on the coast, those battles were carried out by the officers of the FSA, the Military Council, and the FSA’s revolutionary forces, the people of Syria. The battles that took place in Khansir, near Aleppo, who carried out those out? Syrians. And the battles of Khan Al-Asal, carried out by the 9th and the 19th brigades and our brothers among the revolutionaries of Aleppo. During the battle at the Managh Military Airport, who was it that laid siege to the airport, falling as martyrs while the airport’s staff fired upon them? The ISIS came [on] the last day and said they liberated the airport. We are the ones who are suffering in this war, and not vice versa.
Q: Do you doubt that military and financial support will come? Why is there such international reluctance?
The international reluctance to support us has its reasons. The cause is weakness of will, and not a lack of capabilities. They have very enormous capabilities. They have a weak will, and are unable to make a decision even knowing that the matter is clear. There are people being exterminated, the United Nations and the countries of the world have moral and legal responsibilities.
Q: Have you been disappointed, then?
We’re not disappointed, but rather bitter. There was talk of strikes just around the corner, and then this threat disappeared and the regime began once more act without restraint. We’ve been told that the American people are tired of wars because of Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. But the situation in Syria is different. What is needed is not a direct military intervention on the ground, but air strikes directed to the command centers and primary bases of the regime, those which facilitate their ability to follow-up. But we must recognize that the regime has a powerful lobby even in America, and it spends a lot of money on propaganda, media, satellite TV, and other lobbying. They’ve spent than USD 40 million in the United States to buy ads and even entire media institutions. These groups now accuse the FSA and other resistance groups of being terrorists and gangs, in order to change American public opinion.