Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in the north of northern Syria's Idlib region. Image Credit: AFP

Antakya, Turkey: It appeared to be a huge step forward for the scattered rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar Al Assad of Syria: the creation of a central body of top insurgent commanders who would coordinate military campaigns, direct foreign support and serve as a unifying force for their diverse movement.

But 14 months after its creation, the body, known as the Supreme Military Council, is in disarray. Islamist groups have seized its weapons storerooms, its members have stolen or sold its supplies, and one prominent commander it armed and equipped has publicly joined an offshoot of Al Qaida.

The council’s full dysfunction spilt into public view recently when a group of its members decided at a secret meeting to oust its chief of staff, Gen. Salim Idriss, and put another man in his place.

While the opposition’s exiled leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, quickly congratulated the new leader, the move baffled many in the opposition, including the new leader himself, who had not even known he was in the running for the top job.

“My friend called and told me, ‘Congratulations,’” Brig. Gen. Abdul Ilah Al Bashir said in an interview after his appointment. “I asked him, ‘Good news?’ He said to turn on the television.

“I swear to God, no one was in touch with me,” he added. “I knew nothing about it.”

The chaos within the opposition’s military council reflects the wider mistrust and internal rivalries between Syria’s rebels and their powerful foreign backers that have consistently undermined their ability to form a united front against Al Assad.

Though rebels across Syria share the goal of changing the government and often cooperate in battle, recent interviews with nearly 20 rebel commanders, fighters, logistics officers and opposition officials paint a picture of a movement handicapped by infighting. Many rebels accuse their colleagues of choosing the expansion of their own power over the fight against the government.

The new chaos in the rebel leadership comes as internationally backed talks aimed at ending the war have failed to make progress and as the Obama administration searches for new ways to put more pressure on Al Assad.

But the disorder within the council, the umbrella group for moderate, Western-backed rebels, leaves the United States and its allies with one fewer reliable partner to work with to try to affect the course of the war.

Since its formation in December 2012, the Supreme Military Council has never lived up to its name. Although it served as a conduit for foreign military support flowing into Syria, it never received enough aid to fully equip its brigades. This left fighting groups scrambling for support and developing independent networks of wealthy Syrians or Arabian Gulf patrons, granting them independence from the council.

Throughout the war, the Syrian government has characterised the rebel movement as the product of a foreign-backed plot. The Supreme Military Council’s operations lend some credence to this argument. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the uprising’s two largest backers, pushed for the body’s creation and provided most of its support. And Turkey has allowed fighters and regular weapons shipments to cross its southern border.

But many rebels said foreign support has often exacerbated tensions between groups. Arabian Gulf states earmarked portions of each shipment for their preferred brigades, making others jealous and giving the council little control.

“The SMC became nothing more than a storeroom,” said Col. Ziad Obaid, who helped manage the council’s foreign support. “It was a distribution point, not a military institution operating on its own.”

Despite their huge investments, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have never publicly revealed the extent of their support or whether that support is part of a coherent strategy, feeding speculation among rebels about who supports whom.

As the council failed to turn the tide against Al Assad, many rebels blamed Idriss, accusing him of failing to prevent rebel losses and the rise of groups with links to Al Qaida.

“There was no battle you could point to and say, ‘The SMC did this,’ or a force you could say was funded by the SMC,” said Ebrahim Al Hamwe, an arms coordinator for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Others accused the group’s members of distributing arms to their friends or selling them.

Safi Al Safi, who led a rebel brigade near Hama, said he bought 22,000 bullets and 80 assault rifles from a military council member and sold them for a profit of more than $20,000.

“How else was I supposed to feed my men?” he said.

Even prominent council members sometimes helped themselves to its arms. Last year, fighters loyal to the Idlib-based rebel commander Jamal Maarouf seized weapons from the body’s storehouses on the Turkish border, according to people present at the time.

Though Maarouf did not respond to requests for comment, one of his allies, Mohammad Zaatar, confirmed the account.

Reflecting rebel dynamics in northern Syria, Zaatar spent the first half-hour of a recent interview complaining about other rebels without once mentioning the Syrian government.

When asked why he refused to cooperate with the Islamic Front, a powerful coalition of Islamist fighters, he accused one of its members, Ahrar Al Sham, of keeping all the loot from a battle his men had participated in.

“My fighters don’t understand why they should fight next to Ahrar Al Sham,” he said.

Prominent defections, including the departure of Islamic Front leaders, marred the council’s image. And late last year, Saddam Al Jamal, an assistant deputy chief of staff who had received arms from the group, publicly announced that he had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an offshoot of Al Qaida, and accused his former colleagues of corruption.

Idriss’ aides declined to make him available for an interview, but Col. Fateh Hassoun, one of his deputies, acknowledged the criticisms.

“All of that talk is 100 per cent true,” he said. “The SMC didn’t give the fighters what they needed because it never got enough support.”

He said that Idriss had recently arranged to resume weapons shipments to the council, but that the recent shake-up of the leadership stopped them. The deliveries were initially suspended after the Islamic Front seized the council’s warehouses in December.

“There are some countries who said they would send arms but they stopped and said, ‘We won’t send anything until you can solve your problems,’” Hassoun said.

For now, the future of the Supreme Military Council remains unclear.

Last week, a group of its members met while Idriss was abroad and announced that he had been replaced, citing the “dysfunction that the SMC has gone through in recent months.”

Idriss responded by calling the move “illegal” and a “coup.”

The move was backed by Ahmad Assi Al Jarba, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, and his supporters have said it will pave the way for a restructuring of the council to make it more effective.

After his appointment to replace Idriss, Al Bashir said he would cooperate with anyone fighting to topple the government. But he had no concrete plans that might turn the council’s fate around.

“We’ll do what we can,” he said, “and we’ll talk to the fighters on the ground and, God willing, we’ll live up to our responsibilities.”

— New York Times News Service