ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — The new Syrian rebel military commander said that he is “very afraid” a cornered Syrian President Bashar Assad will unleash chemical weapons on his own people but that the opposition does not have the means to seize and secure them.
Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July, told The Associated Press in an interview that the rebels could defeat the regime within a month if supplied with anti-aircraft weapons. Without foreign military help, he estimated it could take up to three months.
Mr. Assad’s troops are stretched thin and have lost ground in recent months, particularly in northwestern Syria, but have kept rebel fighters pinned down with massive air bombardments. Gen. Idris claimed that more than 120,000 armed men are fighting Mr. Assad’s military, a figure difficult to confirm independently in the chaos of the civil war.
Gen. Idris said the rebels are trying to monitor the regime’s chemical-weapons sites.
Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest chemical arsenals. Earlier this week, Syria‘s U.N. ambassador said the regime would not use such weapons under any circumstances. However, recent U.S. intelligence reports indicated the regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them.
The regime “can and will” use chemical weapons unless the international community forces Mr. Assad to leave, Gen. Idris said. “We know exactly where they are, and we are watching everything,” Gen. Idris said. “But we don’t have the capability to put them under our control.”
The West has shown little desire to intervene militarily in Syria‘s conflict, but President Obama has said the regime’s use of chemical weapons against the rebels would be a “red line.”
Earlier this week, the Syrian U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, claimed that extremist groups could use chemical weapons against Syrians and then blame the government.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the Obama administration holds the regime in Damascus responsible for securing the chemical weapons. She said that “any effort to abrogate that responsibility, any effort to shift that on to others is just (adding) further to the kind of garbage that we’ve seen from the regime.”
Gen. Idris, a 55-year-old German-trained electronics professor, was chosen earlier this month as chief of staff by several hundred commanders of rebel units meeting in Turkey.
With the election of Gen. Idris and a 30-member military command center, Syria‘s opposition hopes to transform largely autonomous groups of fighters into a unified force. The reorganization came after Syria‘s political opposition won international recognition this month as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
The West has refused to supply Syria‘s opposition with weapons for fear they could fall into the hands of Islamic militants among the rebels, such as the al-Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. designated a terrorist group last week.
Gen. Idris said al-Nusra chose not to be part of the rebel command.
He estimated that about a fifth of al-Nusra’s fighters are foreigners, but he said he believes they will leave Syria once the regime has been toppled. He said the Syrians in the group, which is believed to number several hundred fighters in all, could be brought back to a more mainstream Islam after the war.
“They are not terrorists,” he said of al-Nusra.