US President Barack Obama decided this week that American weapons will be supplied to the Free Syrian Army under Brigadier-General Salim Idris. Of course, the announcement was made in advance of next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to put the US in a better bargaining position relative to Russia with regard to the Syria issue. This is especially necessary since Russia secured the “in principle” agreement of the Assad government to the “Geneva 2” peace talks originally scheduled for this month, which have now been pushed back indefinitely since the US failed to secure from the Syrian National Coalition. Amid wide-ranging media speculation about the precise extent and nature of the US military aid, it is important to know a bit more about who will be receiving the materiel in Syria.
Salim Idris (سليم ادريس) is the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. Born in 1957 to a poor farming family south of Homs, he enlisted at a young age in the Syrian army. He was trained in electrical engineering in Dresden in East Germany from 1977 until at least 1990, earning a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990. He spent twenty years as a professor of electrical engineering at the Military Engineering Academy in Aleppo. Previously a brigadier general in the Syrian Army, he defected from supporting the Assad regime to the Free Syrian Army, then under the command of Colonel Riad al-As’ad (رياض الأسعد), in July 2012.
In December 2012, a meeting of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army retained Colonel al-As’ad as symbolic Commander-in-Chief but reorganized the structure to create a Supreme Military Council with Salim Idris at its head and five deputy chiefs of staff under him. It is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article how these deputy chiefs of staff line up with the nine regional commanders of the FSA reported in the English Wikipedia article, with regional military councils in eight of the fourteen governorates of Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and perhaps Latakia and (the commanders of these latter two provinces are listed as “unknown”). The army is reportedly based in Idlib province.
In assessing how likely weapons supplied to the Supreme Military Council are to end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida, there are several factors in play. One is how much of the weaponry will be expended in the war with the regime, but that is difficult to predict. Another is how much central control the Supreme Military Council has over the use of weapons. A third is what connections the central command has with al-Qa’ida aligned rebels. An excellent Reuters article quoted Abu Nidal, a fighter in the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, to say that while they are not formally part of the Free Syrian Army, they fight “in formation” with the FSA, which presumably involves sharing weaponry. An earlier Reuters article from the time of the reorganization indicated that at least two of Idris’ deputy chiefs of staff are “Islamists”: ‘Abd al-Basit Tawil from Idlib and ‘Abd al-Qadr Salih from Aleppo. I have not yet been able to find any additional information about these two and their “Islamist” connections.
Per a reader suggestion, I am constructing a list of military groups in Syria for easy reference, but that will take some time. I may post unfinished draft versions of that page in the process of development.