Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Syrian stalemate fuelled by opposition's bitter infighting

How many people have died as the Syrian opposition has been bickering in Istanbul?

The Syrian political opposition, in its current form, is a hopeless case. Members of the opposition have been holding intensive talks to expand the National Coalition for nearly a week, with little progress.

The meetings in Istanbul are meant to discuss the inclusion of more members, mostly moderates, in the coalition to make it a more representative and balanced political body. As it stands now, the political body is controlled by one group that has a tenacious monopoly over the decision-making process.

On Monday, the coalition's general assembly announced that eight new members have been added, after they won 42 votes from existing members. But the coalition has deep structural issues that render the inclusion of new members almost meaningless.

The principle sticking point involves voting. Existing members of the coalition insist that the inclusion of new members must be based on balloting by existing members only. But this would change little in a monopoly that was made possible by interference from regional countries to begin with, rather than based on consensus among Syrian opposition. The existing members were not chosen by the people to decide whether certain opposition figures should be members or not.

The second issue is the "blocking third", or the veto power held by a third of the members. This idea was advanced by the coalition's secretary general, Mustafa Al Sabbagh, and was clearly meant to maintain the monopoly of the current core group within the coalition.

Mr Al Sabbagh was directly appointed by Qatar and its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood when the coalition was formed in Doha in November. Shortly after his appointment, he unsuccessfully tried to bypass the coalition's leadership through ad hoc power grabs.

Mr Al Sabbagh insists on maintaining the position of secretary general while presiding over the blocking third. He also wants to increase the number of "local councils" - groups of Syrians claimed to be based on geography - by one for each two new members added to the coalition. He was appointed as a secretary general after he falsely claimed he represented those councils.

Such formula would only make matters worse. In effect, the arguments in Istanbul are about the current members seeking to expand their influence within the coalition, instead of making it more representative and dynamic.

Without solving these structural issues, the dominant members can maintain their monopoly even if new members are added. The same happened when the Syrian National Council was replaced by the current National Coalition - although the latter began as a more representative body, the Muslim Brotherhood soon took full control of it.

One member of the coalition told me Mr Al Sabbagh has been pushed by Doha to block any changes to "give the impression that the new sponsors of the Syrian dossier have failed". By new sponsors, he meant Saudi Arabia, which has assumed responsibilities of sponsoring the Syrian opposition, pushing Qatar aside.

Members of the opposition have shown during the Istanbul talks that they put their interests above and beyond the interests of the people they claim to represent. Sources told me that a foreign ambassador told Mr Al Sabbagh that his attempts to block the expansion will undermine the coalition in upcoming weeks as Russia and the United States organise a peace summit.

The ambassador told Mr Al Sabbagh that the failure to reach an agreement might lead to the fracture of the coalition. The ambassador asked him: "What's your priority?" He replied, and I paraphrase, "My conditions are more important and urgent".

These cynical moves were also highlighted in a video that emerged on Monday, showing a heated conversation between the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier, and a member of the coalition. The ambassador chastised the member for blocking the attempts to reach an agreement. The member got angry at the ambassador and told other members that he did not care whether France would "cut weapons" from the opposition. The member added that the opposition did not need France.

How many people have died as the opposition has been bickering in Istanbul? An area near Damascus was reportedly attacked with some type of chemical weapons. Hizbollah has escalated both its rhetoric and operations in Syria. The death toll is climbing as I type.

The world is still waiting for the opposition to make a decision as to whether it will participate in the peace conference later this month, Sources say that the opposition is stalling by insisting that the UN issue it a formal invitation to attend the conference.

Still, the world has taken some steps. The European Union, for instance, has effectively lifted its arms embargo to allow member states to arm the Syrian rebels and renewed economic sanctions on the regime.

It is remarkable that the only time the opposition has spent talking this long since the beginning of the uprising is when they feel their political future is at risk. There have been only two other instances in which the opposition met on this scale for an entire week: when a US-backed plan to replace the Syrian National Council was presented in the winter of last year; and during Cairo meetings in July, when the council was asked to subject itself to an independent committee in charge of restructuring it.

It is time for Syrians to realise that the political opposition is an important factor behind the stalemate.


On Twitter: @hhassan140

Updated: May 29, 2013 04:00 AM



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