General Salim Idris.
General Salim Idris. Photo by AP
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Reuters
Syria rebels fire at a government helicopter in Aleppo. Photo by Reuters

Top Syrian rebel commander General Salim Idris denied Thursday reports that he had abandoned his post and fled the country following an Islamist takeover of a warehouse near the Turkish frontier.

Idris is in northern Syria working with field commanders and overseeing military operations, the FSA said in response to the reports.

The Free Syrian Army also denied that their top commander had fled the country. "These unfounded rumors are intended to weaken the morale of the fighters at a time they need to be focused on dealing with the Assad regime's gangs," the statement said.

The New York Times reported earlier Thursday that Idris escaped into Turkey earlier this week and subsequently flew to Qatar. Hours after the reports emerged, The New York Times quoted top officials as saying Idris had returned to Turkey where he has a house.

Meanwhile, the United States and Britain suspended non-lethal aid to northern Syria after the Islamic Front forces overtook the buildings, which belong to the opposition Syrian Military Council (SMC), in Bab al-Hawa on the border with Turkey.

Syria's Western-backed opposition denied that the Islamic Front had seized the warehouse, saying instead that it had invited Islamist fighters to secure its depots on the Turkish frontier after an attack by Al-Qaida militants.

The Syrian National Coalition said it had in fact asked the Islamic Front, a union of six major rebel groups, to defend the premises against fighters from the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"The SMC warehouses were overrun by ISIL ... As a result of that, [SMC leader] General Salim Idris sent a request to the Islamic Front to protect these warehouses," coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said in Istanbul.

"The Islamic Front came in and managed to push ISIL back and they are waiting for General Idris's group to come and take control of their warehouses," he said.
Saleh did not say whether the warehouses contained weapons.

The U.S. and British aid cut-off underlined a crisis in the rebel leadership, which seeks international backing to reinforce its credibility and stop fighters joining Al-Qaida-backed groups now leading the struggle against President Bashar Assad.

The SMC's inability to control its own storehouses without help from Islamist groups has exposed its military weakness.

SMC spokesman Louay Mekdad said Idris was meeting Islamic Front brigade leaders near the border to try to resolve the issue.

Abu Talha, an Islamic Front leader, confirmed his fighters had been responding to the SMC's plea for help. "In truth, the call came a bit late," he told al Jazeera television.

"There was more than one case of theft or looting from the Command and unfortunately the Supreme Command doesn't have the power yet to defend its weapons depots and its bases," he said, referring to the SMC, which the West has tried to build up as the body in overall command of the campaign to topple Assad.

For months rebel leaders have discussed how to restructure the SMC into a more organized body. But with hundreds of brigades to be consulted, progress has been slow, with the Bab al-Hawa standoff a new hindrance, rebel sources said.