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article imageWestern-backed head of FSA flees advance of Syrian Islamic Front

By Ken Hanly     Dec 12, 2013 in World
Damascus - General Salim Idris, the commander of the key western-backed umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, has been driven out of Syria. His headquarters and warehouses in northern Syria have been taken over by the Islamic Front.
General Idris reportedly fled first to Turkey and then to Qatar. Some of the warehouses seized by the Front were filled with US aid. The US has announced that it has frozen all direct aid to the country, although humanitarian aid will continue. This development may cause further problems for the peace conference on Syria planned for January. The Free Syrian Army was associated with the western-backed political group the Syrian National Coalition who now will represent few of the fighters on the ground. The Islamic Front and the more radical Islamists of the Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq(AQI) or Islamic State in Sham (ISIS), both Al Qaeda-linked groups are not part of the Islamic Front but together they will represent a large group of rebels not associated with the west or the FSA.
The warehouses and offices taken over by the Front were controlled by the western-backed Supreme Military Council(SMC) that coordinates distribution of US aid. The group also seized a border crossing into Turkey. Since the Islamic Front does not include the most radical Islamists, the US has been holding talks with the group to try to persuade at least some to participate in the upcoming peace talks. If they do, there is likely to be deep division within the western-backed groups.
The US is still not clear as to the exact circumstances of the takeover and has been urging General Idris to return to Syria. The CIA has been providing some arms to rebel groups it selects. The CIA refused to say whether there were US weapons in the warehouses seized by the Front. General Idris also received weapons from Saudi Arabia and other countries.
The Islamic Front apparently offered to help protect the warehouses and headquarters from more radical Islamists. However, when they arrived they said that they were taking over according to a senior US official. There was no battle. It amounted to an internal coup according to one senior US official, although other US officials disputed this description. Another senior US official said: “I wouldn’t say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris".
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki also claimed that the US was still supportive of the SMC saying: “The SMC continues to be, and this hasn’t changed, the group that we work through and that we want other countries to provide aid and assistance to". The Turkish government closed a border crossing after the Islamic Front took control of it from the SMC.
According to Charles Lister, of JHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, the Islamic Front is estimated to have about 45,000 fighters The FSA once had between 70,000 and 150,000 fighters but is now down to about 40,000 according to one commander. Opposition activists in the area say that the Islamic Front is attempting to diminish the power of the SMC in the area. An activist said on Skype: “They don’t want the SMC to exist. They took over all their bases and set up new checkpoints". In the past the Front has cooperated in operations against Assad with both the FSA but also with Al Qaeda-linked groups.
Moderate members of the SMC say that there is only an ideological difference between the SMC and the Islamic Front in that the Front wants an Islamic state while the SMC members want a secular democratic state. But there are practical differences too. The Islamic Front wants the west to provide them with arms and wants the SMC to be reorganized claiming the SMC distributes weapons in a manner not related to need: “They would distribute weapons based on previous decisions not based on which battlefronts were in greatest need. This is why we called for the reorganization of the SMC.” For its part, the SMC maintains that the Front is actually much better financed and armed than the SMC and one SMC rebel said that the Front simply wanted to be on top and was making a power grab.
More about Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front in Syria, Syrian civil war, Syria
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