Syrian Rebel Commander: 'We Need A Lot Of Things'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
We're into July, and still no date has been set for a peace conference on Syria. The United States and Russia announced plans for that conference back in May. And Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart again today, agreeing that it should be held soon.
SIEGEL: In the meantime, Syrian government forces have been making gains on the ground and the U.S. has pledged to send arms to the rebels.
Joining us now is Gen. Salim Idris, who is the commander of the Syrian rebels. He defected from the Assad regime last summer and he's been seeking more arms from the U.S. He joins us today from Istanbul.
Welcome to the program, Gen. Idris.
GEN. SALIM IDRIS: Thank you. Thank you.
SIEGEL: President Obama recently approved supplying your forces with light arms. Have rebel forces in Syria seen the results of that decision yet?
IDRIS: Not yet. We received a lot of humanitarian support and medical support, and some technical equipment, and other kinds of support from the United States but not lethal materials yet.
SIEGEL: And when you say that you need more weapons, what is it that rebel forces need? What are the arms that you think you need to turn the tide?
IDRIS: We need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, the shoulder-launched missiles, and traditional weapons and ammunition. We need a lot of things. And now we don't have enough weapons and ammunition to face the forces of the regime.
SIEGEL: Last month, the rebels lost the strategic town of Qusair, right near the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah forces were fighting there on the side of the Assad regime. How big a setback was that for your side?
IDRIS: Yes, we lost al-Qusair. And at the last week of the fight, the regime used very heavily the air force, supported by the long-distance artillery and the artillery of the tanks and the SCUD missiles. And in every minute, there were more than 18 to 20 missiles against that part of this town - every minute. And they destroyed really everything in the northern part of the town. And (unintelligible) they couldn't face a very, very powerful offensive because they were armed only with light Kalashnikovs.
And the issue of many, many injured inside the town forced them to withdraw and to go to the farms near al-Qusair and to the villages beside it.
SIEGEL: But, Gen. Idris, given the weapons and the foreign assistance that the Assad regime had in al-Qusair, would shoulder-launched missiles and anti-tank weapons have actually made that great a difference in that fight? Or were you simply overpowered regardless of what the rebels were armed with?
IDRIS: Of course, we need these anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, and that would change a lot of things. But what happened in al-Qusair was, it was better to go out of this town and to rebuild themselves to attack the regime forces elsewhere.
SIEGEL: So you're saying it was a tactical withdrawal from al-Qusair. But can you actually imagine retaking that town, having the strength to oust the government from al-Qusair?
IDRIS: Yes, our fighters now are in many villages around al-Qusair. They are preparing themselves. They are organizing themselves. And the FSA are not like traditional or a regular army...
SIEGEL: The FSA, the Free Syrian Army, we should say.
IDRIS: Yes. Yes. We are not a regular army. We are battalions and brigades of civilian revolutionary forces. And we can't - in many, many battles we can't hold or control the locations. We have to fight as small groups to hit and run. It is better. But in al-Qusair, we were forced to defend civilian people there. And now, I think, our forces near al-Qusair are now fighting against the units of the regime in al-Qusair.
SIEGEL: Can you imagine an end to the Syrian war in which one side decisively defeats the other on the battlefield? That is, either your side is crushed by the Assad regime, or you march triumphantly through the streets of Damascus having defeated the government? If not, don't you at some point have to negotiate with the regime some end to the fighting, a cease fire, a peace agreement for the country?
IDRIS: We are not really fighting to come to a point or to a time to defeat the regime totally, and to celebrate in the streets of Damascus. We are fighting to stop killing, to stop destruction. And when the regime is ready for negotiation and our conditions are: the murderer Bashar, this criminal president must leave power and must leave the country; and the commander of the security forces, and the commander of the army, they must be brought to justice. And then we can have a transitional government and soon...
SIEGEL: Well, how do you...
IDRIS: ...to rebuild - yes, sir.
SIEGEL: What will happen to convince President Assad that he should leave before there are peace talks, which is what you're saying? Why wouldn't he at least hold out for some face-saving, at least for some face-saving formula by which he would negotiate an end to his presidency?
IDRIS: Yeah, he is not acceptable. He can't have any role in the future of Syria. If they believe that the future of the country is important, they have to come to negotiate without Bashar.
SIEGEL: But who are they, if not Bashar, who would actually be the people you negotiate with?
IDRIS: Yes. Yes. In Syria, we have a lot of high-ranked employees in the government. And those who are not involved in killing and in giving order to kill the people and to destroy the country, they can come and negotiate.
SIEGEL: Well, Gen. Salim Idris, commander of the Free Syrian Army, thank you very much for talking with us today.
IDRIS: Thank you. Thank you.
SIEGEL: And Gen. Idris spoke to us from Istanbul in Turkey.