Syria’s top rebel commander warns the losses his forces are suffering will become insurmontable in “weeks not months” if the West does not help reinforce his army in its fight against Syrian government loyalists and trained Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters.
Free Syrian Army Commander Gen. Salim Idriss told the Washington Guardian that the situation for opposition forces is desperate as President Bashar Al-Assad’s loyalist army and Hezbollah fighters are advancing on several key locations.
“It is very dangerous now because Hezbollah and the regime are making progress on the ground,” Idriss said in an interview. “They have a huge amount of weapons, new weapons and ammunition. It can be weeks not months if we don’t get assistance. The regime didn’t have enough (loyalists) to fight on the ground, but Hezbollah does. Iran continues to train and supply fighters, money and weapons. Without help from the West, we can’t keep fighting (Hezbollah).”
Idriss spoke by phone Monday night from an undisclosed location along the Syrian border as President Obama’s top aides gathered this week to weigh possible U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. The options are not easy for the United States as arming rebel forces raises concerns that weaponry may fall into the hands of al-Qaida sympathists aligned with the rebels, and increases fears that Hezbollah’s network will activate against American interests as retribution for getting involved.
Obama aides were reported to be divided on the question of intervention after a series of meetings Wednesday.
Idriss listed multiple front lines where his forces and other rebel fighters are engaged toe to toe with Iranian fighters and government loyalists. He said the airport in Tripoli on the Lebanon border “is surrounded by Hezbollah fighters” and that there was also heavy fighting in the outskirts of Aleppo, Damascus and other areas throughout the country.
The rebel general said he has been in contact with U.S. officials and lawmakers all month. He hopes lawmakers will push the president for support and “all I pray for is that President (Obama) does what is right and finds a way to support us before it is too late.”
Idriss‘ assessment to the Washington Guardian closely matches that of U.S. officials monitoring the fighting inside Syria and the spread of violence now outside Syria’s border that threatens to destabilize the larger Middle East region.
A U.S. defense official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said “no option is off the table” for helping the rebels if they can show progress into forming into a more organized fighting force.
“We have already begun expanding our assistance to the Syrian Military Council (SMC), in close consultation with SMC leadership,” the official said. “As the SMC’s military units become more cohesive, we will continue to look for ways to build their capabilities.”
“The Joint Staff, along with the relevant combatant commanders, continue to conduct prudent planning for a range of possible military options,” the official added.
The rebel forces have told Americans they are in desperate need of surface-to-air missiles, armor piercing weapons, ammunition and other necessary weapons, Idriss said. Rebel forces also want the U.S. to create a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the border of Turkey, something that is currently not being planned by American defense officials.
James Carafano, a senior defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation think-tank, said Idriss’ description of the growing role of Hezbollah fighters is consistent with U.S. intelligence findings. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria “is a game changer” for both the U.S. and Europe, Carafano added.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in the past several years since the uprising and civil war began, according to the United Nations.
Idriss said the international community needs to stick by its promise, particularly the United States, not to allow Assad to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people. “They are still using chemical weapons and materials,” Idriss said, alleging Sarin gas was used as recently as Monday against rebel forces and citizens.
U.S. officials could not immediately confirm Idriss‘ new allegation, although they have said they have some evidence of prior chemical weapon usage in the civil war. Reports from French Intelligence and the U.N. suggest that Sarin gas has been used in Syria on at least three occasions, though there is some debate about who actually deployed the chemicals. Assad’s regime has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.
Obama warned earlier this year that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that could lead to military options for the U.S. and European forces.