ANTAKYA, Turkey - The defected Syrian general whom the United States has tapped as its conduit for aid to the rebels has acknowledged in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers that his movement was badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads what is known as the Supreme Military Command, also admitted that he faces difficulty in creating a chain of command in Syria's highly localized rebellion, a shortcoming he blamed on the presence within the rebel movement of large numbers of civilians without military experience.
"It is difficult to unify the [rebels] because they are civilians and only a few of them had military service," he said.
Idriss has become the key man in the international coalition battling to oust the Assad regime. The United States announced in April that it would funnel $123 million in nonlethal aid through his group, an operation that has begun. At the same time, U.S. allies agreed at a meeting in Istanbul that all lethal aid destined for the rebels would pass first to Idriss.
But whether Idriss and his Supreme Military Command can become a functioning military force remains a huge question. While Secretary of State John Kerry said he was confident of Idriss' ability to deliver a coherent rebel strategy while keeping weapons away from al-Qaeda-linked groups, there's been little evidence of that.
With the Assad government pushing to take back ground lost to rebels in the last year, building a rebel force that is not dependent on the Islamist forces that have been leading rebel successes takes on increasing significance.
Idriss said that he was working on a countrywide command structure with sub-councils in each of the 14 provinces, but that a lack of material support was hampering that effort.
"We don't have sufficient ammunition and weapons," Idriss said. "We don't have enough money for logistics, for fuel for the cars, for cars for the units. We can't pay salaries."
He acknowledged he had little influence over what rebels do in Syria and no direct authority over some of the largest factions.
On Monday in Heesh, an empty and badly damaged city in northern Syria where the government recently broke the months-long siege of Wadi al-Deif, a strategic army base on the country's main north-south highway, the dynamics Idriss described were on display, as well as the aid the United States has provided thus far: communications equipment, food, and body armor. As the crash of an incoming artillery shell split the air, rebels asked whether such support was a joke.
"We need weapons," said Hajj Saleh, a former primary school teacher who is in command of the rebels in Heesh. "The Americans just want us to die slowly."
Idriss himself was more diplomatic.
The Americans "say we need to know if you are an organization and you can distribute and handle support and if you can keep order in the country when the regime falls and you can protect the minorities," Idriss said.