Syria: What Idris Says is Needed to Turn the Tide

While Bashar al-Assad, his supporters, and his apologists seem to have good reasons to radiate optimism these days, General Salim Idris, a career military educator who defected from Syria in reaction to the regime’s crime wave, believes that the regime’s newfound confidence is unjustified. In the course of a meeting with me on August 5 in the region, the chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council made clear his belief that the tide has turned in terms of specific commitments and deliverables he is receiving from key supporters—including the United States—in terms of weaponry, training, strategic coordination, and financial assistance. Acknowledging that he desperately needs this support to bring order, discipline, and operational coherence to an otherwise fractious collection of militias and home guard units known collectively as the “Free Syrian Army,” Idris nevertheless rejected the proposition that he commands nothing inside Syria or that jihadists dominate the opposition. Yet that which he directs at present is insufficient to expel from Syria his estimate of 20,000 foreign fighters assembled by Iran to support the regime.

The Assad regime, Russia, and Iran have carefully measured the West and have concluded they can preserve part and ultimately perhaps all of Syria for a criminal enterprise that serves their respective interests. For the regime it is the power and privilege of a family dynasty. For the president of Russia it is preserving a client to make a broader point of resurgent Russian power, irrespective of the price to be paid by Syria and Russia alike. For Iran it is all about Lebanon: saving a client in Syria uniquely willing to subordinate the national security interests of his own country for the sake of Iran and its militia presence next door.

For the moment the regime seems to be intent on consolidating itself within a strip of land west of line running from Jordan to Turkey and including the major cities and suburbs of Damascus, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Tartus. This corridor would be less a part of Syria than an extension, de facto, of the Hezbollah-dominated Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The manner in which the regime has responded to its opponents strongly suggests that it considers the bulk of the Syrian population and territory not even worth governing. Why else would it subject neighborhoods filled with Syrian citizens to merciless artillery shelling, aerial bombing, and missile strikes? Perhaps the regime calculates that the balance of Syria will eventually fall to it like a rotten apple, leaving it in a position to exact vengeance at its leisure. For the moment, however, it is feeling secure in a reduced space under the protection of Iran and Russia.

Idris went into considerable detail to describe the kinds of assistance arriving now and scheduled for delivery in the near future: details whose public disclosure should remain entirely at his discretion. One of the things that makes the General an attractive interlocutor is his tendency to see the glass as half full instead of half empty: an attribute one can search for and rarely find in the ranks of the Syrian opposition. Yet there is a potential downside to the man’s positive professional attitude, his ability to make do with what is on the table, and his readiness to say “thank you.”

He described, for example, in positive terms a level of financial support he is receiving that struck me as wholly inadequate and even disgraceful, especially in light of the money that has flowed from sources in the Gulf to pseudo-religious criminals in Syria: jihadists right out of the jahaliyya (the pre-Islamic “era of ignorance”) whose presence is a lifeline to a terrorist regime dining out on the obscene assertion that it is battling terrorism. When pressed, the General acknowledged that he could put to good use a monthly stipend five times greater than the pittance (my word) he is now receiving to pay and feed his soldiers.Conditioned for so long to getting virtually nothing, General Idris seems more inclined to say “thank you” instead of “you must be joking.”

Money aside, Idris was somberly and systematically clear about what he badly needs and has not yet gotten: air defense weaponry to counter the regime’s terror (including, he asserts, chemical attacks) from above; effective diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to cease their support of what amounts to a personal family vendetta; and a discrete, focused Western military intervention aimed at destroying or seriously degrading the ability of the regime to wreak widespread destruction and terror through massed artillery, aerial, and missile fires. He acknowledged that the last of these desires would obviate the second, rendering a sensitive arms transfer unnecessary. He also acknowledged that the regime’s terror-through-bombardment campaign is effectively blocking much of the NGO humanitarian relief program inside Syria. Although he is reluctant perhaps to break with the balance of the Syrian opposition in its ritualistic (if uninformed) calls for no-fly zones and protected areas, Idris acknowledged that a sharp and limited campaign designed specifically to put the regime out of the long-distance terror business would produce the very effects he and others are seeking when they call for other measures.

General Salim Idris will not remind one of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or Ulysses S. Grant. That which he brings to the table is more comparable to the skills of a George Marshall or Dwight Eisenhower than those of Robert E. Lee or George Patton. His professional background is not that of a unit or army commander steeped in combat operations at different levels. His strengths appear to be those of an organizer and strategist, precisely the qualities needed by a Syrian opposition sorely lacking in them.

Indeed, these qualities and the overwhelming need for them far overshadow one potential area of vulnerability: what appears to be an inclination to accept in good faith the assurances of some that he and the Supreme Military Council will henceforth be the sole and exclusive channel through which all military assistance, lethal and non-lethal, will flow. His judgment on these matters may well be correct; he is a sober, focused, and engaging person. Yet in this case not even Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” warning will suffice. There is no reason for General Idris or the United States to trust anything or anyone, given past performance. The United States must, with the full cooperation of Turkey and Jordan, help Idris translate these promises of exclusivity into action.

Whether or not the apparent empowerment of General Salim Idris will help stabilize and eventually reverse the situation on the ground in Syria remains to be seen. The current fashion in the commentariat is to hold out the previously unthinkable prospect of a regime victory. It is indeed a proposition that deserves to be taken seriously.

Yet given the chronic disorganization of the mainstream armed opposition—something Idris wants to address and correct with weapons, equipment, food, and money—one wonders why the regime has not already won, especially in light of Iran’s military intervention, Russia’s military and diplomatic support, and the hesitancy on the part of the United States to end (diplomatically or otherwise) barbarous regime tactics that kill indiscriminately, drive people across borders, and prevent humanitarian NGOs from doing their best to bring relief to those who urgently need it.

The regime has friends for whom the word “victory” has positive connotations. The fact that it has not won outright under these ideal conditions suggests it may well win nothing in the end. If the support for Idris proves to be serious, sustained, and focused, it can turn the tide once again in terms of momentum on the ground. Yet it may well take a game-changing response to the defiant, contemptuous crossing of the chemical weapons red line by the regime to accelerate an end to Syria’s suffering and to inaugurate an effort to build a real state in Syria; one reflecting the citizenship-based values of Salim Idris and those willing to fight under his command.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof