x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

GCC rift could trigger new power struggle in Syrian opposition

Qatar-backed blocs seek to re-enter Syrian National Coalition ahead of crucial general assembly and presidential elections.

A man is comforted by a rescue worker and others following a reported air strike by government forces in which a fellow rescue worker was killed on March 9 in the northern city of Aleppo. Baraa Al Halabi/AFP Photo
A man is comforted by a rescue worker and others following a reported air strike by government forces in which a fellow rescue worker was killed on March 9 in the northern city of Aleppo. Baraa Al Halabi/AFP Photo

Beirut // A renewed struggle is unfolding for control of Syria’s opposition, with the unprecedented diplomatic falling out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar tearing at the fragile Syrian National Coalition.

Members of the disparate opposition alliance are jockeying for position ahead of a series of key events for the National Coalition, including a general assembly in Cairo in coming weeks and the election of a new president this summer.

Decision making within the notoriously fractured alliance has always been fraught but, with the rift between Gulf Cooperation Council states, the stage has been set for an especially bitter round of infighting.

Riyadh and Doha have long backed rival blocs within the National Coalition. But after a conference in Istanbul last June, a gentleman’s agreement appeared to have been struck giving Saudi Arabia a dominant role while Qatar and Turkey – allies of the Muslim Brotherhood – appeared willing to take a back seat.

A month later, Ahmed Jarba, who has close connections to Riyadh and is very much considered as Saudi Arabia’s man, was elected as the National Coalition president. In January, he won a second term of office, apparently cementing Riyadh’s position in steering the alliance.

According to sources within the National Coalition, allies of Mr Jarba are lobbying to get him elected for a third term when the next ballot comes around in July.

For that to happen, however, a major obstacle must be overcome – the National Coalition’s constitution limits all candidates to a maxim of two presidential terms of six months each.

To get re-elected, Mr Jarba will have to first change that rule, something that requires approval by a two-thirds majority of the 120-member National Coalition.

Such a major change has happened only once before, in the Istanbul general assembly last June, when the coalition expanded its membership, diluting the Muslim Brotherhood’s power. That happened only after members were put under pressure from international backers, with exasperated ambassadors and ministers from the West and Arab states flying in for a concerted bout of diplomacy.

With the latest internal GCC dispute putting Saudi Arabia and Qatar more sharply at odds than before, that previous loose alignment of international support now seems to have evaporated.

The odds of Mr Jarba getting the necessary majority worsened last week after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain announced the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Qatar in protest at its policies supporting groups that “destabilised” the region – including the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Friday, two days after that announcement, a bloc of 44 members that left the National Coalition in January – some of them closely allied to Qatar, including Mustafa Sabbagh, a heavyweight figure within the exiled opposition – said they would return.

The 44-member bloc, made up of nine parties, said it was compelled to return to work against a mentality of “exclusion and monopoly” that had emerged within the National Coalition – what appeared to be a thinly veiled swipe at Mr Jarba’s presidential ambitions, and Saudi Arabia’s control.

A week previously, the Syrian National Council – which includes the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and which is also closely linked to Qatar – announced it had returned to the National Coalition, where it holds 23 seats.

These two returning blocs combined hold 67 seats in the coalition – enough to act as a blocking third to thwart Mr Jarba’s plans for a third term if they choose, and giving Qatar useful leverage if it wishes to reign in Saudi influence over the opposition.

“We have had talk here and there about changing the rules for Jarba to stand for a third term, but I’m just not sure how viable it is,” said a National Coalition member.

There have been suggestions that Mr Jarba could try to block some pro-Qatar members among the returnees from taking their seats by seeking a vote against their re-entry.

Whether that ballot happens, and whether Mr Jarba will seek to change the constitution on presidential terms, remains unclear because no agenda has yet been set for the upcoming general assembly, due to take place in Cairo in the next few weeks.

The meeting itself has not yet been confirmed because the National Coalition has not been able to get a guarantee from the Egyptian authorities that all of its members will be allowed to attend.

Some in the National Coalition are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation BY Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia, meaning they risk arrest if they fly into Cairo.

Since the formation of the Syrian National Council in August 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood has been accused by its opponents of trying to dominate the opposition in exile, and is often accused of wielding far greater influence behind the scenes than its relatively modest representation of just six members in the National Coalition suggests.