Nation & World

Syrian opposition plan to oust Islamist extremists awaits U.S. hearing

Syria’s pro-western opposition has developed a plan to oust extremists of the self-styled “Islamic State” from their base in Syria and protect Syrian civilians living in rebel-held areas, but it is waiting for the Obama administration to give it a hearing, the acting defense minister says.

Nour Kholouf, a defected Syrian army general, said Islamic extremists who last month seized more than one third of neighboring oil-rich Iraq had become a greater threat to Syrian rebels than the regime itself, because they have moved into territory rebel forces have seized from the Assad regime and routinely cut off the rebels’ supply routes.

But he said rebel forces could force the extremists on the defensive and expel them from a part of the territory they now control in just three weeks of fighting, if the United States provides the necessary backing.

In a second stage, he said rebel forces could oust the extremists from the Raqqa region up to the border region between Syria and Iraq.

“I need weapons. I need money. I need a no fly zone or anti-aircraft weapons. I need intelligence data,” Kholouf, who’s held the post since May in the Syrian interim government, told McClatchy.

“We could kick them out of the Aleppo region in 20 days and force them back to the borders of the Raqqa region,” he said in the interview Friday. At that stage, the rebels must “take account of what weapons they’re deploying, and respond,” he said.

“But I can say confidently that if the American side makes the decision to end the Syrian crisis, we will have sufficient fighters.” In six months, he said, “we can bring security to 80 per cent of Syria.” There was one condition, he said: “that we are not left alone.”

Kholouf said he could deploy at least 100,000 rebel fighters if he could provide the weapons, ammunition and provisions to sustain them. Only about half are currently armed.

He said the transitional government is hoping to present its long-term vision and its short and middle range strategy to the U.S. side, but no date had been set. “We are working to arrange a meeting,” he said.

President Barack Obama has openly disparaged the Syrian rebel forces, saying they are incapable of defeating Assad or the Islamic State, but U.S. officials acknowledge that support for the rebels has been fitful and insufficient to test their capabilities on the ground. Two weeks ago, Obama announced he would ask Congress for $500 million to aid the rebels, but administration aides said the White House had no plan on how the money would be spent.

“When you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad,” Obama told CBS last month, “the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.”

He was responding to a question whether U.S. failure to provide adequate support to the Syrian rebels had created the vacuum that the Islamic State filled in Syria and Iraq.

Kholouf, a major general in the Syrian army before defecting to the rebels, blanched when a reporter quoted Obama’s reference to a “fantasy.”

“With its current resources, the FSA is unable to defend itself,” Kholouf said. “We are saying that there’s an imminent and future threat of terrorism that might destabilize this region for a decade -- unless we and our friends put together a strategy to get rid of terrorism.”

As for the “fantasy” of defeating the Islamic State, Kholouf noted that in January, FSA units ousted the extremists from wide swaths of Syrian territory with no outside help.

“We have a precedent. They were in control of parts of Latakia, Idlib provinces, parts of Hama and Aleppo, and we got rid of them in 15 days,” he said. “This is because the Syrian people do not accept Daash,” he said, using the Arabic name that the movement despises.

As for Obama’s dismissive reference to dentists and farmers, he said in the four moths since he’s been in charge, the interim government has begun training and dispatching defected senior officers into Syria to organize, train and command volunteer civilian fighters.

“I have in hand 3,000 defected officers, who have the ability to use every sort of weapon,” he said. The officers are secular, because they were serving in Assad regime ranks, and dozens had been dispatched to help organize and guide civilian-led military formations, such as the volunteer force led by Jamal Marouf, a civilian contractor, who led the offensive against the Islamic State in January. He said defected officers now lead at least 35 of the 50 to 60 main fighting formations.

“We are trying now to make a change, to move from open revolutionary activities to organized military activities,” he said.

It isn’t clear why U.S. government, following the Islamic State’s dramatic gains last month, apparently has failed to explore the plans that the civilian leadership is preparing. A western diplomat in the region told McClatchy that the U.S. had been waiting for the Syrian opposition to elect a new civilian leadership, which it did this past week, naming Saudi-based businessman Hadi al Bahra to replace Ahmed Jarba, and for the civilian leadership to produce a strategy.

Kholouf noted that the U.S. government currently delivers lethal aid directly to commanders of 14 fighting groups in the north of Syria and three or four in the south, circumventing the rebels’ civilian leadership.

“It is a mistake for the Americans and others to come here and deal directly with the armed groups,” he said. “Now that we have established a ministry of defense, international contacts must be with the ministry, not with the staff.”

One of Kholouf’s most critical demands is that the U.S. either establishes and maintains a no-fly zone over rebel held areas of Syria, something the government of neighboring Turkey has long advocated, or provide the FSA anti-air defenses, a move that the U.S. government until now has adamantly refused.

Without that protection, he said the Assad regime will attack the FSA from the air as it moves against the Islamists. “Any time I fight ‘Daash’ the regime will use its air force against me wherever I move. We have to be able to move about freely,” he said. “I cannot fight Daash if the regime is there.”

In addition, a no fly zone would protect civilians in Aleppo and other cities and towns in rebel-held areas from regime air assaults using “barrel bombs” and missiles, attacks that have forced millions to flee their homes.

He charged that the Assad regime does not want “Daash” to be defeated or forced out of Syria, because the group has effectively served regime interests by attacking the FSA, by holding territory the regime cannot dominate for lack of manpower, and by its mere existence, which the regime cites as proof that its opponents in Syria are all Islamic extremists.

But if the FSA receives support, he said it will be able to undercut other Islamist groups, including Jabhat al Nusra, which on Friday declared it had established an “Emirate in Aleppo,” to counter the Islamic State’s “Caliphate.” He said that Nusra had at most 6,000 to 7,000 fighters, and predicted that if FSA succeeded against the Islamic State, at least 60 per cent of them would join FSA.

Special Correspondent Mousab Al Hamadee contributed.