Rebel fighters battle with Syrian pro-government forces Wednesday in Aleppo. (Medo Halab / AFP via Getty Images)
BEIRUT — A U.S.-British decision to suspend nonlethal aid to opposition fighters in northern Syria was taken impulsively and in haste, a spokesman for Syria's main Western-backed rebel group said Thursday, adding that he hoped it would soon be reversed.
The decision came after opposition fighters from conservative Islamic rebel brigades seized warehouses containing U.S. military gear that was intended for the main Western-backed moderate rebel group. The move underscored the weakness of the mainstream rebel faction, known as the Free Syrian Army, that Washington and its European allies have tried — at times reluctantly — to mold into an effective partner inside Syria.
The suspension dealt another blow to the Syrian opposition, highlighting diminishing international support for their cause as al-Qaida linked rebel groups within the broader opposition's ranks have rapidly expanded their hold across rebel-held territories.
"We believe it was a hasty decision and we are in contact with our British and American friends ... to reconsider this decision," said FSA spokesman Loay al-Mikdad.
The warehouses belonged to the FSA's Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Salim Idris, a secular-minded, Western-backed moderate. Idris could not be immediately reached for comment on the suspension and his whereabouts Thursday were unclear.
Al-Mikdad said Idris was at the Turkish-Syrian border area holding meetings with rebel commanders to work out what had happened.
He added that the suspension of aid will have a negative effect on Syria civilians, and not only the Free Syrian Army. "The Syrian people need every assistance and we believe that the American and British friends will review this decision," he said.
U.S. and British officials said Wednesday that humanitarian aid such as food and blankets would not be affected by the suspension. The officials also said that they were trying to determine what exactly transpired last week at the SMC warehouses near the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey, and that the nonlethal aid could be resumed once conditions allow for it.
What is known is that fighters from the Islamic Front, a new alliance of six of the most powerful Islamic rebel groups in Syria, gained control of the base last Friday. While the events that led up to that are disputed, it is clear that the takeover marked an embarrassing setback for Idris, who has already seen his influence greatly diminished by the rise of al-Qaida affiliated militants flush with cash, weapons and battleground experience.
Capt. Islam Alloush, a military spokesman for the Islamic Front, denied fighters from the group had forcefully taken over the SMC warehouses. He said fighters from the Front had received a call from Idris' office asking for assistance after FSA fighters came under attack from unknown gunmen.
When the Front fighters reached the area, they found the warehouses "mostly empty" and abandoned by the guards and officers of the SMC, he said.
Al-Mikdad denied that the Islamic Front, which includes former FSA brigades, had seized any sophisticated weapons from the warehouses.
A senior adviser to the SMC confirmed that sequence of events, saying there were 200 FSA fighters at the checkpoint protecting the headquarters when it was stormed, but not by the Islamic Front.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, he said the Islamic Front later captured it and secured it.
He said that Idris, who was not at the checkpoint when it was first captured, held a meeting with members of the Islamic Front on Tuesday in southern Turkey. The official said that the Islamic Front offered to turn over control of the warehouses to the SMC, but he said the SMC does not have the manpower to hold them.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.