In an article in today’s Daily Star about the sacking of Salem Idriss, who headed the Free Syrian Army, the Lebanese news outlet said one reason for his departure was the handling of an incident involving the theft of Western supplies by rebel fighters.
In late November, the Daily Star reported, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham seized Western-supplied vehicles and warehouses at the Baba al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey packed with equipment destined for the Free Syrian Army. A week or so later, in early December, the same warehouses were reportedly taken over by the newly-formed Islamic Front. The warehouses are said to have contained nonlethal military gear, including US-supplied trucks and communications equipment, and weapons.
Idriss had already pledged to cooperate with the Islamic Front, which is the largest coalition of Islamist fighting groups in Syria. One of its leaders, Abu Khalid al Suri, a leader of the Ahrar al Sham, is Ayman al Zawahiri’s personal representative in Syria. The Islamic Front frequently fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
After the seizure of the warehouses by the Islamic Front, the US and Britain suspended the supply of nonlethal aid to rebels in the north. But looking for an ally in the complicated Syrian arena, US Secretary of State John Kerry said it “was possible” that the US would meet with the Islamic Front; State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, however, that if the US were to have such a meeting, it would expect the return of the stolen materiel, according to Agence France Presse. The following day US envoy Robert Ford said that the Islamic Front had refused to meet with US officials.
On Dec. 11, The Wall Street Journal reported that Idriss had been driven out of Syria by the Islamic Front and had fled to Doha, Qatar. In a Jan. 16 interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Idriss said that in a meeting with the Islamic Front a month earlier “all unresolved problems between us were resolved” and that it “welcomed the project of uniting military forces on the ground” with the SMC.
On Jan. 27, the Associated Press reported that the US had resumed the shipment of nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels. US officials said the aid was now being sent only to nonarmed opposition groups, and that the distribution of the aid was being handled by the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, headed by Idriss. They described the prior suspension of aid shipments as only a “precautionary measure” until the Obama administration could verify that the aid was in secure hands.
The unnamed US officials cited in the AP article also told the news agency, interestingly, that “[i]tems taken in December from the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey have since been returned … and US-supported rebel groups have taken steps to prevent future supplies from being diverted,” the article stated.
That same day, Reuters reported that the US was planning to resume the supply of nonlethal aid to the Supreme Military Council, according to another unnamed US official, who said: “We hope to be able to resume assistance to the SMC shortly, pending security and logistics considerations.”
Whether or not the supply of aid to rebels in the north is currently flowing (McClatchy noted today that some $56 million in nonlethal aid is reportedly on hold), it appears that the stolen equipment was never returned, despite statements to the contrary by US officials.
Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council, recently told al Arabiya of the SMC’s frustration after three months of waiting for the return of the stolen materiel:
The spokesman said other council members were outraged when Idriss did not publicly blame the rival rebels for the theft. “[The rebels] did not return a single weapon, and he [Idris] did not do a thing. All the officers went to their tents and the warehouses were empty, and nothing remained of the FSA.”
Saadeddine also said that during that three-month period, “[t]here began to be divisions in the armed opposition. There was no military leadership. The military leadership was scattered, each leader of a brigade worked alone.”
Al-Bashir, the new chief of the Free Syrian Army, formerly headed the military council of Quneitra. It remains to be seen whether he will do any better than Idriss in maintaining some sort of control over the flow of weapons and other equipment to Islamist rebels in Syria.
In the meantime, the conflicting statements by US and SMC officials over the fate of the stolen equipment raise a host of uncomfortable questions about US efforts to support whatever remains of the moderate opposition in Syria.