REYHANLI, Turkey — Caught off guard by the abrupt dismissal of the U.S. point man for moderate Syrian rebels, the Obama administration is now searching for new clients to aid in an insurgency that’s dominated by Islamist factions, including groups with connections to al-Qaida.
The downfall of Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel leader the State Department once described as “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” leaves the United States again with no clear partner in the almost 3-year-old civil war.
The rebel vote to oust Idriss, taken Sunday at a meeting of the 30-member Supreme Military Council, was mostly a formality; he’d lost any real authority in December, when Islamist fighters seized SMC warehouses across the border from this Turkish city.
The United States immediately suspended millions of dollars in nonlethal aid then and still hasn’t identified a replacement partner who shares the American vision of a moderate, democratic Syria to replace the regime of President Bashar Assad. The SMC, meanwhile, is struggling to reconstitute itself, and it’s unclear whether its new commander, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, a field commander, shares the U.S. view of Syria’s future.
Dan Layman, the spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S.-based rebel fundraising group, said al-Bashir’s selection was a surprise. Unlike other rebel commanders, he is not well known in international circles, Layman said.
That would make him a very different kind of partner from Idriss, who took his post to great fanfare from the Western and Persian Gulf nations backing the anti-Assad rebellion. An East German trained engineering professor, Idriss used his English and connections to press his Western allies for “game-changing weapons” to fight the regime. Secretary of State John Kerry was personally impressed with Idriss, a spokeswoman told reporters last year.