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Mutiny leaves in doubt future of US-allied 'moderate' rebels in Syria

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 Idriss.

Idriss, 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 rejecting his dismissal in favor of a little known commander from southern Syria.

Flanked by more than a dozen regional military leaders, Idriss also declared that the 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 Idriss once headed and that endorsed Moustafa’s recommendation, “We will have nothing to do with their decisions,” Idriss said.

The Supreme Military Council responded Wednesday night 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. 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, the spokesman for the anti-government Local Coordination Committee, said pro-Assad soldiers now are manning checkpoints in the town, in exchange for allowing civilians to leave after a yearlong siege. He said 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 it 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 the Levant, 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.

Shipments of arms and ammunition for fighters and relief aid for millions of homeless Syrians have ground to a halt after ISIL forces captured a village less than a mile from the Bab al Salaam border crossing and then fired a mortar into the crossing itself.

Another important border crossing, between Reyhanli, Turkey, and Bab al Hawa, Syria, has been closed since the weekend after an Islamist rebel faction, Ahrar al Sham, clashed with armed squatters who have reputedly been robbing aid convoys into Syria.

The Free Syrian Army has long been eclipsed by the better armed and financed Islamist groups, but the split now over Idriss’ leadership presents a tremendous challenge both to Jarba and to the major foreign supporters of the opposition. They include Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which supply arms and ammunition, and the United States and Britain, which have furnished non-lethal aid.

There were now two competing military staffs, according to a Free Syrian Army military leader who backs the commanders’ uprising. “The politicians have organized their general staff,” said Hamza al Shemali, referring to Jarba. “The rebels are organizing their own staff. The days ahead will show who is the real general staff.”

Shemali, who commands the Hazem Movement, which includes several major Free Syrian Army groups, told McClatchy the aim of the rebellion is to force the resignation of both Jarba and Defense Minister Moustafa.

But he declined to call the action a coup. “Everything in Syria needs new terminology,” he said. “This is a revolutionary military group.”

It wasn’t clear where the breakaway forces would obtain their arms in the future. Shemali said the ground commanders understood that the U.S. had now decided to start sending lethal aid. But the understanding was based on a news story that ran during the first round of peace talks in Geneva, not on any decision by the Obama administration.

It is an open question whether the U.S. or other countries will send support to commanders who don’t acknowledge civilian control.

Shemali said that did not matter. “If things don’t go the right way, they will have made a try,” he said, referring to Idriss and the commanders. “At least for now, they say they will not accept people imposed on them.”

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