BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s rebel generals pledge not to seek power for themselves but will support a civilian transitional government if they depose President Bashar al-Assad, the head of a newly established military command told Reuters.
“The military people do not want to seize power after Assad is gone,” Brigadier Selim Idris said by telephone on Tuesday, three days after he was appointed to lead the new organization.
“We just want to form a national army and we will not intervene in politics,” said Idris, who defected from Assad’s forces last year. He was speaking on the eve of a gathering in Morocco of Assad’s Syrian and international adversaries.
Assad inherited the presidency from his father, a former air force commander, and ending decades of rule by such army-backed autocrats has been a central demand of the Syrian opposition, as it has been in other uprisings across the Arab world.
Underlining his commitment to civilian control, Idris said that while the rebel forces were anxious to obtain new weaponry, particularly anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, they were ready to wait until the rebels’ newly reshaped political leadership was ready to oversee international arms procurement.
“We are looking to have a Syrian government that has the legitimacy that brings the right to buy weapons,” he said. A civilian defense minister would handle purchases in due course.
As well as battling Assad, the tasks facing the new military body include coordinating fractured rebel groups and overseeing arms movements which some rebels say are out of control.
The new rebel command brings together most existing rebel entities including several brigades which formed an Islamist front two months ago and “provincial military councils” which operated under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, a group largely run by officers who had defected from Assad’s forces.
Idris said he would extend a hand to all officers, notably FSA commanders based abroad, especially among refugees in camps in Turkey. He would encourage them to join the fight.
Referring to FSA founder Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa al-Sheikh, both left out of the new, Islamist-dominated body, he said: ”In the camps, there are large numbers of officers. We need to give them tasks and get them onto the battlefield.
“As for those two dear friends ... I will do everything possible to ensure they have roles among their brothers.”
Asaad and Sheikh have been criticised for choosing to stay in Turkey while rebel fighters were engaged in fierce battles in Syria. Idris’s new command will base itself in rebel-held territory inside Syria, overseeing the military operations.
“The first step now is to have a strategic plan for military operations to topple Assad,” Idris said, speaking shortly before he was due to start a series of meetings across the region.
While the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have seized several urban districts and army bases they are still under-equipped and lack heavy weapons to confront Assad’s armor and airpower.
They hope that after the formation of the new military body, weapons will flow from abroad, particularly from Sunni Muslim Gulf states. But Idris said that arms could only be received “legally” though an opposition transitional government. He played down rebel complaints about lack of substantive support.
“The issue with arms is that it is delicate and sensitive,” he said. “It’s not easy to get heavy weapons; it involves governments and international agreements; we can not embarrass our brothers in the Gulf who have been supportive and are doing their best.”
The Gulf monarchs and their U.S. and European allies are concerned that heavy weaponry, notably shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, could fall into the hands of rebel groups affiliated with anti-Western militants in al Qaeda and others.
“Getting and transporting anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons can only be done in a legitimate way,” Idris said.
“We will buy our weapons through our defense minister.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald