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BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a major setback to U.S. support of the Syrian rebels, the commander of the Free Syrian Army fled Syria after members of the newly created, Saudi-backed coalition of Islamic fighters attacked his compound and seized nearly all of his Western-supplied weapons.
Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, chief of the staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, reportedly is in Doha, Qatar, after fleeing his compound in the attack by the Islamic Front and escaping across the border to Turkey.
Idris was a general in the Syrian army before defecting in July 2012. He is considered to represent the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian National Coalition, the political entity that backs the Free Syria Army, is based in Doha. Idris’ compound is in Bab al-Tawa in Syria, near the border with Turkey.
The Islamic Front is a coalition created last month of some seven so-called “moderate” Islamic militant groups opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has asked the U.S. to support and train the coalition.
However, the Islamic Front’s recently published charter states that its aim is to establish an Islamic state in Syria with the implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah.
The Islamic Front is firmly against secularism or any human legislation, believing that laws come only from Allah. It would make any non-Muslims in Syria, particularly Christians and other minorities, second-class citizens.
The new coalition does not contain the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the ISIL. But Islamic Front members such as Ahrar al-Sham are difficult to distinguish from the al-Qaida-affiliated groups.
Ahrar al-Sham, for example, recently conducted a joint raid with Nusra Front and ISIL against Hezbollah and pro-Assad militias.
Along with the Saudis, the Islamic Front has the backing of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
The Sunni Gulf Arab states have put up some $6 billion in financing to bring down the government Assad, a Shiite Alawite supported by Shiite Iran.
The Gulf Arab countries want the U.S. to provide training and arms and to facilitate the movements of the fighters.
However, the attack has raised serious concerns in Washington and among other Western nations that have been providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army. The supplies now have been suspended.
The attack by the Islamic Front also suggests that even the Saudis don’t have control over the Islamic fighters who come from many parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa.
Bandar has declared an all-out war with Iran using the foreign fighters to establish caliphates throughout the Middle East.
Bandar’s actions also have raised the ire of the Russians, who are concerned that many of the thousands of Sunni Chechens now gaining war experience in Syria will return to launch attacks in Russia.
Russia is preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, not far from the southernmost Muslim Russian provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and South Ossetia.
Bandar recently told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could switch on and off the Chechens and ensure there would be no attacks during the Olympics, if Moscow withdrew its support from Syria and Iran.
Putin reportedly refused.
Not as ‘insane’ as other jihadists
Among the Islamic groups joining the Gulf Arab state-backed coalition is the Liwa al-Tawhid, the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, al Haq Brigades, Ansar al-Sham, the Islamic Army and the Kurdish Islamic Front.
The Islamic Front is comprised of three prior umbrella groups: the Syrian Islamic Front, or SIF, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, or SILF, and the Kurdish Islamic Front, or KIF.
Under the SIF are the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, the Kataib Ansar al-Sham and Liwa al-Haq. Under the SILF are the Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid and Jaish al-Islam.
The U.S. has not designated any of the groups as terrorist organizations, prompting an Israeli official to argue at a meeting in Washington last week of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, that there is nothing stopping U.S. funding and support for them, according to international lawyer and Middle East expert Franklin Lamb.
Lamb identified the Israeli official as Yossie Cohen, Israel’s new national security adviser.
Cohen reportedly assured congressional leaders that tens of thousands of rebels making up the Islamic Front will support “one policy and one military command.”
He also claimed that the new Islamic Front group is not as “insane” as other Muslim militia groups such as Daash, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“Reportedly, the objective will link the fight in the north with that in the south in a manner that will stretch loyalist forces; and the Saudi-Israel team is also asking the Obama administration to more than double the monthly ‘graduation class’ of CIA-trained rebels in Turkey, Syria and Jordan from its current level of 200 per month, up to 500 a month,” Lamb said.
The argument used by Cohen and the Saudis is that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost some $6 trillion. The $6 billion applied to the effort to topple Assad will be worth the cost, they say, and they will worry about the rise of al-Qaida later.
“Ironically, these are some of the same voices from AIPAC’s congressional team who four years ago were claiming that al-Qaida was ‘on the ropes and will soon collapse,’” Lamb said in an article in Counterpunch magazine. “Yet, they are optimistic that if Assad goes, ‘we can deal with the terrorists, and it won’t cost $6 trillion.’”
The plan for U.S. involvement reportedly has been dismissed by some in the Obama administration as too risky and “pathetic.”