BEIRUT (AP) — The coalition of Syrian opposition groups in exile announced they appointed a new army chief on Monday, following a year of seeing their influence fade in Syria.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said was appointing Brigadier Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir to head the Free Syrian Army. It cited specifically an embarrassing raid on their weapons warehouse by rival rebels last year as a reason for the change.
Brig. al-Bashir replaces Gen. Salim Idris, seen as a secular-leaning moderate.
In a statement, the coalition said they hoped al-Bashir would strengthen the role of the FSA, "one of the most important tools of the Syrian revolution in facing a regime of death, terrorism and destruction."
The switch comes after a series of so-far failed talks in Switzerland between officials loyal to President Bashar Assad and exiled opposition activists to try to resolve the three-year war.
It also comes after at least a year of the FSA losing influence to other, more hard-line rebel groups which appear to have better funding. Those rebel groups, which include several conservative Islamic coalitions of brigades and a powerful al-Qaida affiliate has since come to play an increasingly prominent role in the uprising. Infighting has since weakened the rebel groups, who have being trying to push out an al-Qaida breakaway, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
A spokesman for the coalition's military council, which oversees the FSA, said the turning point was when al-Qaida-linked militants seized warehouses belonging to the group near the Turkish border in December.
The raid prompted a sudden cutoff of Western supplies to the rebels, leaving fighters without arms and scattering already-badly weakened opposition forces.
"We waited three months after the assault and seizure of the (warehouse)," said spokesman Col. Qassem Saadeddine to the Arabic channel al-Arabiya. "But the situation only became worse. There began to be divisions in the armed opposition. There was no military leadership. The military leadership was scattered, each leader of a brigade worked alone," Saadeddine said.
The spokesman said other council members were outraged when Idris did not publicly blame the rival rebels for the theft. He said the raid was a blow to morale.
"(The rebels) did not return a single weapon, and he (Idris) did not do a thing. All the officers went to their tents and the warehouses were empty, and nothing remained of the FSA," he said.
He said Idris was removed with the consensus of the coalition's entire military council.
Idris was meant to unify the rebels who emerged after the mostly peaceful uprising against Assad in March 2011 was violently suppressed.
He regrouped chaotic rebel units more than a year ago under a unified command called the Supreme Military Council. But the FSA was always seen as weak, with Western and Arab allies wavering over whether to deliver powerful weapons to the group.
Western officials resumed non-lethal weapons assistance such as communications equipment in January.
Al-Bashir is the head of the military council for the southern region of Quneitra near Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, tweeted Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's "Syria in Crisis" website. Lund said al-Bashir defected in summer 2012. His deputy will be Col. Haitham Afiseh, who was a critic of the former FSA leader, Idris.