If an Syrian press report is true, then the firing of General Salim Idriss as military chief of the Syrian rebels is part of a push-back against the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its sponsors in Qatar and Turkey.
In September, the U.S. liaison for a major Free Syria Army leader, Col. Nagi Najjar, told Clarion that Idriss had taken over the command of the rebels — called the Supreme Military Command — with support from Islamists like the Brotherhood. He argued that the “real” Free Syria Army was sidelined.
Idriss was recently replaced by General Abdel al-Ilah al-Bashir (alternatively spelled al-Bachir), a commander from southern Syria. The Free Syria Army said he would lead new operations against the Assad regime and terrorists, presumably referring to Al-Qaeda.
The Arabic report states that General al-Bashir will investigate the corruption of rebel military officials, including Idriss, who is accused of having diverted $5 million from Qatar to arm a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group in Turkey. A Pakistani newspaper was similarly told by a Syrian rebel source that “bad distributions of weapons” was a key reason for the removal of Idriss.
The report claims that the “architect” of the Brotherhood operations in Turkey is named Ghazwan el-Masri and he collaborates with Turkish intelligence. The Turkish government is a stalwart ally of the Brotherhood.
A 2012 study by the Henry Jackson Society states that al-Masri is a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Committee and has “maintained strong ties with [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan personally and the AKP [Erdogan’s party] generally.” Al-Masri is also linked to the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a terrorism-linked entity close to Erdogan.
The Syrian report named several other Free Syria Army officials as implicated in the scandal. It is alleged that they sold a stockpile to the Turkey-based Brotherhood that included: 50 Kalashnikovs, five Russian RPGs, 50 machine guns, 40 night vision goggles and ammunitions.
General Idris and rebel military commanders aligned with him say they will not accept al-Bashir’s authority, creating yet another split among the Syrian rebel forces.
There is reasonable speculation that the replacement of Idriss with al-Bashir was done at the behest of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is Islamist but views the Muslim Brotherhood as an enemy.
It is probably not a coincidence that the leadership change came as the Saudis agreed to provide the Syrian rebels with Chinese shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and Russian anti-tank missiles. The weapons will originate from Pakistan and will be stored in Jordan. The purpose of the shipments is to help the southern rebel forces recapture land near Damascus. The northern forces are seen as more closely linked to Turkey and Qatar.
The Saudis may be trying to minimize the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the Islamist domination of the Syrian rebels. It’s simply replacing one Islamist with another.
Remember, the Saudi government follows "Wahhabism," a type of Salafism, and funds it around the world. The Saudis view evangelizing Saudi-friendly Salafism as a religious duty and a means of proxy warfare. The Muslim Brotherhood is targeted because they are hostile to the Saudi Royal Family, not because of their ideological orientation.
In recent months, the Saudis tried to undermine the Idriss-led Free Syria Army by creating their own independent rebel force called the “Army of Islam.” These Salafist forces are openly pursuing Sharia governance.
If the Saudis are happy with General al-Bashir and the new Free Syria Army leadership, they may merge the two forces. Even if they remain separate, it remains true that the Saudis are moving hard and fast to become the dominant force among the Syrian rebels.
Even though that’s bad news for the Muslim Brotherhood, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the West and anti-Islamist Syrians.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.