The former leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition’s military wing on Wednesday rejected his recent dismissal, before severing ties with the political opposition-in-exile along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders in a move that further fragments the notoriously divided rebel movement.
The statement from former Brigadier General Salim Idris came two days after the opposition Syrian National Coalition announced that he had been sacked as chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and replaced by Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, an experienced field commander from southern Syria.
The move was widely seen as an attempt to restructure the military council and persuade Western allies to boost their support for mainstream rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Moderate opposition fighters have been eclipsed over the past year by ultraconservative Islamic groups and extremist factions that have emerged as the most powerful brigades on the rebel side, but the move also holds the potential to further fracture rebel ranks and sap what little strength the military council has.
In a video posted online on Wednesday, Idris said that after consulting with forces inside Syria, he and the 15 other signatories to the statement were breaking ties with the council and the opposition’s political leadership.
“We stress that all that emanates from them does not concern us in any way,” he read from the statement.
Sitting at a table and flanked by men dressed in fatigues, Idris said he has been asked to overhaul the rebel military leadership and called on all rebel forces on the ground to rally under his command.
He then accused some members of the political and military opposition of making decisions based on “individual and personal interests.”
Most of the other men in the video could not be immediately identified, but among the statement’s signatories were regional front commanders.
It was not clear what impact Idris’ break with the council and the political opposition abroad will have, or if the rift caused by the general’s dismissal can be mended, but the coalition sought to head off any dispute over the council’s leadership by issuing a statement on Wednesday reaffirming al-Bashir’s appointment.
It also confirmed that al-Bashir was assuming his new duties immediately.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, described Idris’ move as a potentially significant development.
“He appears to enjoy the support of a wide range of senior commanders whose zones of command cross Syria,” Lister said by e-mail. “Until the dust settles, this essentially leaves Syria with two military opposition councils.”
Lister added that “the more dangerous it could be for the long-term viability of the SMC [the military council].”
Idris was named the head of the council shortly after it was formed in late 2012. During his time in command, the secular-leaning moderate was criticized by many in the opposition as ineffective and lost the confidence of the US and its allies.
Washington and its European allies have long tried to mold the council’s Free Syrian Army into an effective partner inside Syria, but the umbrella group was always seen as weak, with Western and Arab allies dithering over whether to give them powerful weapons.