Syrian Rebel Leader: We Won't Share U.S. Arms With Extremists

Originally published on May 5, 2013 11:01 am

The Obama administration says it's considering providing arms to rebels fighting to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad if the U.S. can confirm his forces did in fact use the debilitating nerve gas sarin in recent attacks. Coupled with news that Israel reportedly launched an airstrike at a target in Syria to prevent a shipment of missiles from reaching Hezbollah, these events could represent a game changer in the conflict-ravaged nation.

The 'Moderate' Opposition

The so-called Free Syrian Army is not a traditional army, but instead made up of many small battalions and brigades that have come together to fight Assad's regime. According to Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, the rebel group's chief of staff, it doesn't operate like a traditional fighting force.

"I don't like to say that we are working just like a regular army because the majority of the forces are civilians," Idris tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.

Idris would likely manage any military assistance the U.S. decides to provide. The U.S. and its allies believe he represents the so-called "moderate" fighters — those who want to topple the president and install a democratic government.

A senior Obama administration official told NPR the weapons the U.S. would most likely provide are shoulder-fired missiles, which could take down aircraft. That would be a good start, Idris says, but it would not be enough.

"We need other kinds of traditional weapons," he says, "because the regime is supported by Russia and Iran, and they have many, many kinds of weapons and a lot of military units."

Idris says he would like to see a full no-fly zone in Syria, but the U.S. supports only partial no-fly zones, where civilians would be protected and rebels could regroup. He says it wouldn't be enough to protect the liberated areas.

"The regime has a very powerful air force," he says, "and when we have only a no-fly zone in the north and the south, it will be not enough because they can [still] use chemical weapons and aircraft against our citizens."

Idris says the regime is using Scud missiles and wants more pressure from allies to prevent the use of the Russian-made ballistics.

Putting Weapons In The Right Hands

If the U.S. does give weapons to the Free Syrian Army, there is also the danger of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. Hard-line Islamists that don't answer to the group and are more in line with al-Qaida are also fighting Assad's regime.

Idris says the Free Syrian Army doesn't coordinate with factions that don't fall under its command structure and that it doesn't share weapons.

"They don't like to share with us [either]," he says. "All of the members of the Supreme Military Council agreed ... not to share anything with the extremist groups."

He says the rebel army will work hard to keep track of the weapons, should the U.S. provide them.

"We are ready to make lists of the weapons and write down the serial numbers," he says. "The Free Syrian Army is very well organized and when we distribute weapons and ammunition we know exactly to which hands they are going."

Idris says that when the regime falls, they will be ready to give back all of the weapons. It remains to be seen whether he could hold his men and commanders on the ground to that plan.

Note: The audio at the top of this page also includes a piece on Syria-related kidnappings, as well as an interview with filmmaker Olly Lambert, whose documentary Syria Behind the Lines is currently available on Frontline PBS.

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Coming up, the diary of one detainee inside Guantanamo, and Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby. It's a trip.

But first, this week could represent a turning point in U.S. policy on Syria. The Obama administration says it's now considering providing arms to rebels in Syria who are fighting to bring down President Bashar al-Assad. That's if the U.S. can confirm Assad's forces did, in fact, use the debilitating nerve gas sarin in recent attacks.

A senior administration official told me this week the new arms would most likely be shoulder-fired missiles, which could take down aircraft. And that's our cover story today: a game changer in Syria.


MCEVERS: If the U.S. does decide to provide more military assistance to the rebels in Syria, who would manage that? The job would likely go to a man named Salim Idris. He's the chief of staff of the so-called Free Syrian Army. The U.S. and its allies believe Idris represents moderate fighters in Syria, those who want to topple their president and install a democratic government.

We reached General Idris in southern Turkey. He admitted the Free Syrian Army is not a traditional fighting force with the top-down command and control structure.

BRIGADIER GENERAL SALIM IDRIS: I don't like to say that we are working just like a regular army because the majority of the forces are civilians. And now we plan the military operation in that centered monarch.

MCEVERS: Would shoulder-fired missiles be enough to turn the tide on the battlefield, we asked Idris. Would it help the rebels topple the Syrian regime?

IDRIS: It is not enough because we need other kinds of traditional weapons because the regime is supported from Russia and Iran, and they have many, many kinds of weapons and a lot of military units. We hope to see a no-fly zone in Syria, and that our friends do more pressure and speak with the Russian to prevent the regime in Damascus from using the Scuds missiles.

MCEVERS: The U.S. is not considering a full no-fly zone over Syria but rather partial no-fly zones where civilians would be protected and rebels could regroup. But as President Obama weighs these options, he's faced with a dilemma. There are other rebels on the ground in Syria, hard-line Islamists, who fall in line with al-Qaida and its thinking and who don't answer to the Free Syrian Army.

I asked Idris, if the U.S. sends these sophisticated weapons into the fight, can he guarantee they won't fall into the hands of the Islamists?

IDRIS: We are ready to make lists of the weapons and to write down the serial numbers. And when we fall the regime, we are ready to give you back all these weapons.

MCEVERS: It remains to be seen whether Idris could hold his men to that plan. While all the talk this week was about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and what the U.S. will do about it, there's also a growing concern here in Washington: The Syrian conflict is spreading to its neighbors. Syria is surrounded by Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and tiny Lebanon, which had its own civil war back in the '70s and '80s.

Back then, tit-for-tat kidnapping was a common tool in the war. It's thought that more than 10,000 people were kidnapped - many of them were killed. And now the practice is surfacing again. And this time, it's all about Syria. I recently visited the Lebanese Syrian border to find out more about what's happening there.

I'm standing here in an area called Wadi Khaled. I am standing in Lebanon, and just beyond the border crossing is Syria. This border crossing used to mean that this area was pretty well off because there was a lot of smuggling. Now this border crossing is a totally different thing. It's a place where refugees cross every day from Syria into Lebanon, escaping the violence. This border crossing is also the place where a young man named Mohammad Hussein al-Ahmed disappeared.

It was March 2012 in the afternoon, Mohammad went to exchange his phone for a new one. He never came home. We meet Mohammad's uncle and neighbor at a funeral in Wadi Khaled. Through an interpreter, they tell me once they realized Mohammad was missing, they made some calls, and eventually learned he'd been taken by forces loyal to the Syrian government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) He was just a high school student. He did not belong to any political organization. None of us is politically active.

MCEVERS: At first, the family hoped the demand would be for money. They made a few payouts here and there. But still, nothing. Then they heard he was taken to a notorious prison in Syria. So, I mean, how do they responded? If money won't work, what do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) We tried all methods.

MCEVERS: The uncle and the neighbor smile. They tell me that a few weeks ago, they kidnapped eight Syrians in retaliation. They like to call them guests.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) The guests are a method of pressure.

MCEVERS: The guests were from the Alawite sect, a minority sect that's the same one as the ruling elite in Syria, including the President Bashar al-Assad. The Ahmed family hopes they can use these guests to pressure their high-ranking relatives to set young Mohammad free.

Do they ever think about, if this works, won't it encourage other people to do the same thing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: No, they say. This is just a local case. But it's not an isolated case. In recent months, there have been a handful of such kidnappings in Lebanon that are directly related to the Syrian conflict. One family recently paid $100,000 to get their relative back.

Later on, I talked to Nadim Houry. He heads Human Rights Watch in Lebanon. He tells me he was surprised to hear people so openly admit they're involved in kidnappings.

NADIM HOURY: What is really - practically really shocking is the impunity for the kidnapping. Those who kidnapped are known. They're not hiding it. They are meeting with activists, with journalists. They are describing what they've done, and yet the state is not doing anything to deter such behavior.

If we can just get in a car and drive to these towns, the Lebanese police can drive to these towns. And actually, the army has checkpoints all around these towns. But they're - in some ways, they're being accessories to a crime.

MCEVERS: The official policy of the Lebanese government is to stay out of the Syrian civil war. Lebanon is a small, weak state with its own sectarian problems. And everyone worries that if it gets involved, it will only bring more violence. The conflict in Syria can be hard to understand. Sunnis versus Alawites and Shiites, government versus rebels.

Filmmaker Olly Lambert tried to make sense of the conflict during the month he recently spent in Syria. He managed to get access to both government soldiers and rebel fighters. The result was a film called "Syria Behind the Lines." It recently aired on PBS' Frontline and can still be seen on its website. One thing that's clear, and it's something that's true in almost any civil war, the two sides simply don't know each other. Lambert joined us from London to talk about the film.

OLLY LAMBERT: I would say that it's gone beyond propaganda on both sides because with propaganda, you always think that people are aware that it's kind of a narrative that's being promoted. What was much more shocking was to realize that the young people in the high school that I filmed with.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

LAMBERT: When they were coming out with these chants about Bashar's, you know, name is written on the gun, and they were going to die for the regime...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LAMBERT: ...they weren't saying it because they were propagandas. They were saying it because they absolutely believed it. And similarly on the rebel side, the language and the vocabulary's all about martyrdom and, you know, death for freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LAMBERT: I imagine that early on in the conflict, people would use these lines as lines of propaganda. But the more time I spent there, I actually realized that people really had absorbed those ideas into their DNA, that they were going to either win freedom or they're going to die in the process.

Although both sides are in opposition, there's an incredible similarity about the way people spoke, and their own kind of fears and anxieties and desires to what's going to happen in Syria.

MCEVERS: The film is so striking, but what's also really striking is this kind of director's cut on the PBS website. It's called "The Bombing of Al-Bara." It's when you're on the rebel's side. And what happens is you're there when an airstrike hits the village.


MCEVERS: You run toward the scene of the bombing. We watch as injured and dead people are pulled from the rubble. And there's no rescue team. I mean, did you get a sense that the relief effort was coordinated in any way after something like this happened?

LAMBERT: I didn't get any sense of any organized relief operation. It's very ad hoc. And people are just grappling with their bare hand. The flip side is that it was incredible to see how this community rallied around. You know, hundreds of people are putting their lives at risk to stick around and try and rescue often complete strangers.

MCEVERS: One moment that just sticks with me is it's a family that's clearly deciding to flee. A boy says he can't find shoes that match. A woman's stuffing her diploma into her purse, but it won't fit. Almost more than the dead and the dying, I remember this. What made you turn your camera away from the action and film that?

LAMBERT: There's a great cameraman, and he always said that the best advice you could give to an observational documentary cameraman is a quick mind but slow feet. I kept saying this to myself over and over again. And what that means is, like, think very clearly about what's going on here but don't feel you've got to run and rush because, usually, what's happening around you will be a myriad of different images and stories. There were images that would stand out such as the family with the shoes and the diploma in the bag.

But it's those kind of images, strangely, that I knew were going to tell the real story. When I say real, I mean the broadest possible story because so much of the footage that comes out of conflict zone, there's always this sort of death and horror and shocking drama. And I'm far more moved, and I think people are far more moved, by those little human details that are taking place that we identify with.

MCEVERS: That's filmmaker Olly Lambert. These faraway images and stories he describes might have just gotten a little closer to home this week as the U.S. weighs its military options in Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.