BEIRUT — After losing ground to Syrian forces and Islamic extremists for months, the Western-backed rebel movement said Monday it was replacing its military chief with an experienced, moderate field commander from the south.
The move is part of a broader restructuring aimed at persuading the United States and its allies to provide more sophisticated weapons to confront President Bashar Assad’s army after diplomatic efforts to end the war failed.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, accused Assad of stonewalling in peace talks and Russia of undermining the prospects of a negotiated solution by “contributing so many more weapons” to the leader.
Kerry, speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, said it was clear the Syrian leader was “trying to win this on the battlefield instead of coming to the negotiating table in good faith.”
Russia, he said, was promoting this approach.
“They are, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem,” Kerry said in criticism that underscored the erosion of the Russian-American partnership in Syria and raised questions about the viability of US diplomatic strategy to help resolve the escalating crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled the city of Aleppo in recent weeks after heavy bombardment by government forces that continued during the peace process. The airstrikes have created one of the largest refugee flows of the civil war, diplomats say.
The opposition reluctantly agreed to participate in two rounds of peace negotiations in Geneva, hoping they would convince the United States of the futility of a diplomatic track to end the country’s three-year conflict. By revamping the opposition’s moderate forces, it hopes to encourage its reluctant US and European allies to send them antiaircraft weapons to challenge Assad’s monopoly on air power.
Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir replaces General Salim Idris, a secular-leaning moderate who was criticized by many in the opposition for being ineffective and who lost the confidence of the United States and its allies, particularly after Islamic extremists seized a weapons depot from moderate rebels. The move was announced Monday in a statement by the FSA’s Supreme Military Council.
Bashir, who previously headed the group’s operations in the southern province of Quneitra on the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is considered a moderate Islamist.
He hails from the region’s most powerful al-Nuaimi tribe, giving him influence among Syria’s conservative rural areas, where tribal connections are important. Rebels say he has vast knowledge of the areas south of Damascus where he served as an army commander until defecting to the opposition in 2012. His son Talal, also a rebel, was killed in battle with government forces in Quneitra last year.
In speeches, Bashir has said he supports a democratic Syria.
“The value of this man to the rebels is enormous. He was the commander of the Syrian Army in the south, which included Daraa province and Golan area. These are the nearest points to Damascus,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of the security department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.
He said that after the failure of Geneva talks, Americans have realized that without escalating the military pressure on the Syrian regime, there will be no progress in the diplomatic process.
“Now the diplomatic process is dead in the water,” Alani said, adding that the United States was starting to relax the brakes on Gulf states who wished to supply the opposition with antiaircraft weapons.
It’s too early to tell whether Bashir will lean toward the West as his predecessor did or move toward a rapprochement with jihadi groups in an attempt to halt infighting. Analysts say he will have to strike a delicate balance between the two to persuade a reluctant West to arm the opposition.
Activists who know Bashir describe him as a devout, but not particularly conservative, Muslim. “He’s a simple man, not an extremist,” said a local activist, Jamal al-Golani.
Washington and its European allies have long tried to mold the Free Syrian Army into an effective partner inside Syria. But the loose umbrella group was always seen as weak, with Western and Arab allies dithering over whether to give them powerful weapons.
The group eventually fell into disarray and in the past year has been overshadowed by more experienced Islamic groups and foreign fighters flush with cash.
More recently, the group has had a series of embarrassing setbacks, including the formation in November of the Islamic Front, a powerful alliance group for a mix of Islamic and nationalist brigades, many of whom broke away from the Free Syrian Army. In mid-December, Islamic extremists raided FSA weapons warehouses near the border with Turkey, leading to a temporary suspension of US nonlethal aid to the rebels.
Amid declining international support for its fight to topple Assad, the group declared a war against an Al Qaeda breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of the most powerful rebel forces in Syria.
Hundreds of people on both sides have died in infighting since the beginning of the year.
By appointing Bashir, a decision made by consensus among the Free Syrian Army’s 30-member Supreme Military Council late Sunday, the Free Syrian Army hopes to show rival rebels that the group is reenergizing with a new, credible leadership.
The council also appointed Colonel Haitham Afiseh, a Free Syrian Army commander in northern Syria, as Bashir’s deputy.