x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Saudis overtaking Qatar in sponsoring Syrian rebels

Saudi Arabia apparently took over from Qatar to deal with Syria's opposition. The move signals a shift in regional dynamics that may help the opposition to improve its performance.

Last week, a 12-member delegation from the Syrian opposition visited Saudi Arabia, for an unprecedented two-day official meeting.

Saudi authorities had consistently declined to meet the opposition, despite repeated requests. This was partly because the kingdom has opposed Muslim Brotherhood dominance in the Syrian National Council and then the National Coalition, owing to the Brotherhood's alliance with Qatar and Turkey and opposition to inclusivity.

But last week, surprisingly, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, met Syrian Brotherhood deputy leader Mahmoud Farouq Tayfour, in one-to-one talks.

The Brotherhood had previously been confident in its alliance with Qatar and Turkey, and saw no need to offer concessions to engage other countries, including Saudi Arabia. So this meeting, which came after an "eager appeal" from the Brotherhood, suggests a shift in regional dynamics.

Two separate sources close to the opposition say Mr Tayfour assured the Saudi minister that "Syria's Brotherhood will definitely not be like Egypt's Brotherhood".

He also "harshly" criticised Qatar's role, even though Qatar had helped revive the Brotherhood in Syria after the Baathists massacred it out of existence in 1982.

Still, this meeting does not mean there has been a breakthrough in the kingdom's relationship with the Brotherhood, which in 2004 then-Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz (who died last June) called the "source of all problems".

The meeting was meant to build channels of communication with the coalition as Riyadh apparently took over sponsorship of the opposition from Doha. Last week Al Arab newspaper, citing opposition sources, said Doha had told the coalition's secretary general, Mustafa Al Sabbagh, that "the Syrian dossier is now in the hands of Saudi Arabia".

During last week's meeting, Riyadh is said to have promised increased support - but only if the opposition agreed to expand the coalition to include minorities. One source said the opposition delegation was told that around 25 groups should be included in the coalition, including representatives of Kurdish forces.

More political and financial support for the coalition will also hinge on who will lead it and the new interim government. Saudi officials made it clear that no support will be provided unless the coalition becomes more inclusive.

Ghassan Hitto, selected in March to head an interim government, will probably be replaced; coalition members are to meet soon about such moves. Mr Hitto's appointment, widely seen as orchestrated by the Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey, led several figures to suspend their membership in the coalition. His replacement will signal the consummation of that supposed Saudi takeover.

Saudi Arabia's replacing Qatar would be a source of relief to many in Syria's opposition, who have been seeking a greater role for Riyadh to counter the influence of radicals in the political and military bodies that have emerged.

Many in the opposition believe that a greater diplomatic role for Saudi would be significantly more useful than Qatar has been.

Also Riyadh paradoxically supports moderate as well as Salafi-leaning forces as a counterweight to the Brotherhood and radical jihadi groups. Salafi groups, while they offer rigid interpretations of Sharia, are not as politically radical as the Brotherhood and jihadists.

The Brotherhood's power base in Syria is limited and exaggerated. And Qatar's support for it is a major cause of the persistent division of the opposition. Membership in opposition political bodies was often decided by older members, not on the basis of merit or representativeness, but by personal connections. This has fuelled a staggering incompetence among opposition leaders, many of whom have limited experience in negotiations, much less with politics.

For example, the appointment of Mustafa Sabbagh as the National Coalition's secretary general came after he showed up in Doha, before formation of the coalition in November, with 16 people he falsely claimed represented provincial councils across Syria. In fact many of them were his employees in Saudi Arabia, or his relatives.

Yet, members of the opposition still blame regional countries for pulling them in one direction or another, when they should be working together to engage more qualified Syrians and agree on key issues. Moaz Al Khatib, who recently resigned as the president of the coalition, told Al Jazeera this week that there is pressure from "regional countries" to expand the coalition. He said he would oppose the inclusion of certain names into the coalition "even if the [names] look like they are suggested by Syrians".

That is an example of the opposition tendency to waste time and effort bickering about "interference" that may actually fix problems created by previous regional interference, such as the unrepresentative make-up of the political bodies.

The opposition has daunting challenges ahead, from sectarian tensions to the increased involvement of deranged foreign fighters on both sides.

Russia and the US have agreed to organise an international conference that could bring together representatives of the regime and the opposition. Who will represent the opposition? What is acceptable for the Syrian people? What to do with the regime's state agencies?

All these questions will be on the negotiation table, and will require unity and focus.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140