Friday, December 15, 2017

New Syria rebel chief describes clandestine life

MAARET MISREEN, Syria — The new Syrian rebel chief said he has been moving between safe houses since taking up command, even changing quarters twice in one night when he feared regime spies.

Grappling with largely untrained and at times undisciplined fighters, Salim Idris said in an interview that he is trying to turn local militias into a united force of some 120,000 men for a final push against President Bashar Assad.

The challenges keep him awake at night, said Idris, a former general who defected from the Syrian army five months ago and was chosen as rebel chief of staff in a meeting of several hundred field commanders this month in Turkey.

Idris is "very afraid" a cornered Assad might unleash chemical weapons on the fighters. He said old friends of his still in the regime have warned him that the military, which already fired several Scuds, is training more ready-to-fire missiles on rebel strongholds in Syria's northwest.

Logistics also pose a nightmare. The 55-year-old, who studied in Germany and taught electronics at a Syrian military college, communicates by Skype with his officers. With power out most of the time, he has had important conversations cut short by a dying laptop battery, said Idris, who spoke with a professorial demeanor and wore a black suit during a brief break from the war zone.

Idris is facing resistance from some local commanders, including in the countryside near Maaret Misreen, a provincial town in the northwestern Idlib province. Some of the men, who command close-knit groups of fighters and are used to making their own decisions, dismissed Idris as a late-comer to the cause who didn't deserve to lead because he hadn't risked his life.

Idris said he thinks the new military command represents the vast majority of rebel fighters in Syria. At their conference this month, the field commanders chose a 260-member military council, which picked a 30-member leadership. The smaller group then chose Idris.

The military regrouping came after Syria's fractured political opposition reorganized and won international recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The West has urged anti-regime forces to unify, as a condition for stepped-up support, and suggested top rebel commanders in exile move to Syria to burnish their credibility.

Final member of NBC team free: The last missing member of an NBC team that was kidnapped in Syria has been freed and is safely in Turkey, NBC News executives said Wednesday.

Ian Rivers was part of the NBC team led by the network's chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel. They were kidnapped in Syria last Thursday, and Engel and several other members escaped unharmed on Monday.

Rivers said he ended up getting released on his own "in the confusion of some type of hand­over."

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