REYHANLI, Turkey — In a mutiny against U.S.-backed civilian leadership, ground commanders of Syria’s moderate rebel forces Wednesday rejected the appointment of a new chief of staff for the rebels’ Supreme Military Command and said they will take orders only from the ousted chief, Salim Idris.
Idris, who once was hailed by U.S. officials as “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” appeared to be fomenting the revolt, issuing a statement on YouTube in which he rejected his Monday dismissal in favor of a little known commander from southern Syria.
Flanked by more than a dozen regional military leaders, Idris also said ground commanders intended to “dissolve” their relationship with Asaad Moustafa, who holds the title of minister of defense in the rebels’ interim government. It was Moustafa, they claimed, who had recommended the selection of Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir as the new chief.
As for the Supreme Military Council, the body that Idris once headed and that endorsed Moustafa’s recommendation: “We will have nothing to do with their decisions,” Idris said.
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The Supreme Military Council responded late Wednesday that it would reorganize the Free Syrian Army. It called on all forces to “abide by the legitimate instructions of the Syrian revolution.” Their statement was endorsed by Ahmed Jarba, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Moustafa and al-Bashir.
The rebellion-within-the-rebellion couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Free Syrian Army, or FSA. The Syrian army is pressing an aggressive military campaign against rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, including the use of improvised explosives known as barrel bombs, while reaching cease-fire agreements with rebel leaders in besieged towns near Damascus that some say are tantamount to rebel surrenders.
Such an agreement was reached this week in Babila, south of Damascus, where Youssef Albostany, spokesman for the anti-government Local Coordination Committee, said pro-Assad soldiers are manning checkpoints in the town, in exchange for allowing civilians to leave after a yearlong siege. He said that some FSA forces have refused to lay down their arms and that fighting is continuing between them and pro-Assad groups.
A similar deal appears to have been struck in the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus, where forces from al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front, on Tuesday pulled out from positions they had held for more than a year. After Nusra’s departure, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was able to resume food deliveries to the area, which once held 160,000 people but is now home to an estimated 18,000.
Meanwhile, another al-Qaida-inspired group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), appeared to be making a comeback in northern Syria, forcing the closure of at least one border crossing to Turkey and marshaling tanks and artillery for an attack on Tal Rifat, a Free Syrian Army-held town north of Aleppo.
It is an open question whether the United States or other countries will send support to commanders who don’t acknowledge civilian control.