By Zeina Karam
and Barbara Surk
BEIRUT: After losing ground to Syrian forces and Islamic extremists for months, the Western-backed rebel movement announced 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 U.S. and its allies to provide more sophisticated weapons to confront President Bashar Assad’s army after diplomatic efforts to end the war failed to take off. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, accused Assad of stonewalling in peace talks and called on Russia to push its ally to negotiate with opposition leaders.
“Right now, Bashar Assad has not engaged in the discussions along the promised and required standard that both Russia spoke up for and the regime spoke up for,” Kerry said during a news conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. He 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.”
The opposition reluctantly agreed to participate in two rounds of peace negotiations in Geneva, hoping it would convince the U.S. 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 U.S. and European allies to send them anti-aircraft weapons to challenge Assad’s monopoly on air power.
Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir replaces Gen. Salim Idris, a secular-leaning moderate who was criticized by many in the opposition for being ineffective and lost the confidence of the U.S. 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.
Al-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 was killed in battle with government forces in Quneitra last year.
In speeches, al-Bashir has said he supports a democratic Syria.