It was moving to read an interview last week with the commander of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. General Salim Idris gave the interview to the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, describing the story of his defection from Assad's forces in June of last year. The roundish and soft-spoken general, who has been dubbed "the professor" by his adversaries due to his last official position as commander of the Syria's military engineering academy, said it took a long time for him to decide to defect.
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"Only my wife and I made the decision," said Idris. "We didn't tell the children. When the moment arrived, after I saw the vast destruction that the army of the regime caused in the village of my birth, Mubarakiya [near Homs], I told my family the time had come to flee."
The escape was a complicated operation since Idris' house was already under surveillance. In an effort to make everything seem normal, he sent his daughters to the market and his sons in another direction, while Idris himself took the rifle he had always kept at home and left the house as though he were on the way to work. Forces from the Free Syrian Army dispatched cars to pick up the family members from the outskirts of the city, and they crossed into Turkey together.
In Turkey the Idris family was placed in a refugee camp that was designated for army officers and kept separate from the camp for low-level soldiers who had defected. From there, the path to a position of high authority was relatively short. In August of last year, Idris was chosen to lead the Free Syrian Army despite differences of opinion among senior officers over his ability to command, given that he had spent most of his military career working in an office.
Idris was also the Americans' preferred candidate as commander of the rebel force. It is not clear what made them so enamored of him other than his fluent English, but once Idris was selected, the rebel group placed its hopes on his shoulders, especially after he convinced the Americans to provide more military supplies, training and weapons.
Things did not go as planned, however, and it was not entirely Idris' fault. Al-Qaida activists operating as part of a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant became increasingly powerful and gained control over areas in the north of Syria and some of the border crossings, which turned the Islamic terrorist group into a real enemy not only of the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army, but also of other radical groups.
In addition, Syria's Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front splintered over major differences between those who favored unification with Islamic State and those who viewed it as a foreign force that should not be allowed to join the Syrian national struggle. Later, Nusra Front commander Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani came into conflict with the Islamic State commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a power struggle related to the imbalance in the amounts that the Gulf states were contributing to each.
These two radical organizations are not the only ones operating in Syria. There appear to be a half dozen or so other Islamic groups, although they are smaller and weaker. It would seem like the disputes among radical organizations in Syria should have strengthened the hand of the Free Syrian Army. But it turns out that many of its fighters have defected and joined the more radical groups, claiming that Idris is incapable of leading them to victory against the Assad regime.
But for the most part, the real reason is the better conditions enjoyed by fighters for these groups and the generous funding the groups receive, along with the fact that they have been taking control of more and more Syrian territory. In addition, infighting among those soldiers and officers who have remained loyal to Idris has also increased. According to various reports, the reliability of which is difficult to gauge, the Free Syrian Army has a force of between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers, far fewer than the tens of thousands who joined its ranks at the beginning of the rebellion.
It appears that the most prominent sign of change is the desire of Free Syrian Army officers to bypass Idris and the opposition leadership, which has been working without great success outside of Syria's borders, and negotiate directly with the Assad regime. Robert Fisk, who writes for the British daily The Independent, reported last week about a meeting between two senior figures in the Free Syrian Army and senior member of Assad's army. They reportedly discussed the possibility of opening a national dialogue, in the course of which the Free Syrian Army would give up its weapons in exchange for assurances that no harm would come to its members. They would also pursue ways to promote democratic rule but without demanding as a precondition that Assad be removed from power.
It's not clear whom these Free Syrian Army officers represent and to what extent there is support for their ideas. If the report is correct, however, it's possible that the crisis in the Free Syrian Army and the weakness of the political opposition could lead the United States to conclude that there is no group it can work with to carry out a revolution in Syria. The Americans may also conclude that if the total disintegration of Syria at the hands of Al-Qaida is to be avoided, it would be best not to be too adamant about bringing down the Assad regime.
That's the dilemma faced by those attending a second Geneva conference on Syria, scheduled for next month. Some of the opposition groups have announced they will not show up unless the removal of the Assad regime is on the agenda. But with the Syrian civil war approaching its third year without a resolution and the Iran issue also on the front burner, the United States may prefer to come to an understanding with Russia at the expense of the rebels. Washington is liable to decide that this is not the right time to pursue its aspirations for democracy in Syria or its romantic notions of deposing a repressive regime. And that would not be the only policy U-turn the Americans would have made this year.