Qatar Trumps Saudi Arabia On Syrian Opposition Leader

Qatar broke the agreement it reached with Saudi Arabia on appointing Asaad Mustafa as head of a Syrian temporary government and maneuvered to appoint Ghassan Hitto, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

al-monitor Ghassan Hitto attends a news conference in Istanbul after the Western-educated technocrat was chosen by Syrian opposition leaders to be the country's provisional prime minister for a temporary government, March 19, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Topics covered

un, syrian opposition, syrian, syria crisis, saudi, qatar, muslim, moaz al-khatib, lakhdar brahimi, gulf, geneva, bashar al-assad, arab

Mar 21, 2013

A “temporary Syrian government” for the opposition ... a Qatari coup against Saudi Arabia in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCR) ... and the sabotaging of the US-Russian understanding.

The first fruit of the above is that 12 NCR members froze their memberships a few hours after provisional prime minister Ghassan Hitto presided over his new Syrian “government” in contravention of the deal that Qatar and Saudi brokered among the various wings in the NCR.

The Qataris came out victorious in their struggle to influence a large part of the Syrian opposition abroad and in determining the next course of action. Over the coming days, Qatar may score another victory by granting the “temporary government” Syria’s seat in the Arab League, which meets in Doha on Tuesday [March 26].

Syrian opposition sources said that what happened in Istanbul [on March 19] was a coup against the Qatari-Saudi agreement reached in recent weeks. Under that agreement, Syria’s former agriculture minister, Asaad Mustafa, was to have headed the “temporary government.”

An NCR source said that after 14 hours of closed-door meetings and phone consultations, which Qatar’s Foreign Ministry directed from its headquarters in Doha, Qatar broke the agreement on Mustafa being elected to head the temporary government. Small and independent blocs that had clout were isolated, as was NCR president Moaz Khatib, who was forced to bow to the majority’s choice. He had previously rejected the “temporary government” option and called for avoiding this reckless step. He was against choosing figures with no unanimous support. He said that obtaining Syria’s seat in the Arab League, something Qatar is pushing for, is not worth the risk of harming the NCR.

An NCR source said that Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari Foreign Ministry’s office director, intervened to impose Hitto. The electoral committee members were summoned from their hotel rooms after midnight in order to elect Hitto, a naturalized US citizen and Texas resident, to be prime minister of the temporary government.

Several factors combined to pull off the Qatari coup and impose a “sovereign temporary government” instead of an “administrative executive body.” Many NCR members changed positions. In the end, 33 of 66 NCR members voted for Hitto. Muslim Brotherhood leaders had opposed forming a temporary government but changed their minds after the US and Russia reached an understanding over the Geneva Accord. The Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful force within the NCR. The Brotherhood also controls a large part of the Syrian National Council, with 26 seats, and has an ally in NCR Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, whose bloc comprises 15 representatives from the revolutionary movement and the “local councils.”

The US-Russian understanding troubled the Brotherhood because it revived the Geneva Accord. That accord requires the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to share the transitional government with representatives of the Syrian regime, under a US-Russian umbrella. Statements by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would stay on during the transition process in return for the Russians accepting a transitional government with absolute powers indicated that the political option was now being favored over the military option, at least in theory.

An NCR source said Sabbagh persuaded the Qataris to replace Mustafa with Hitto. The latter’s closeness with the Brotherhood and his US connections, especially in the State Department, helped his selection.

An NCR source said the Saudis were shocked by Qatar’s maneuver. The Saudis had sacrificed their favorite candidate, Riad Hjab, during their consultations with the Qataris in favor of the consensus candidate, Mustafa. Moreover, the Qataris rejected a Saudi request to postpone the election.

Twelve NCR members withdrew to protest Hitto’s temporary government. Among those who withdrew was NCR Vice President Suheir al-Atassi. She voted for Hitto but reconsidered her position for no apparent reason and declared the next morning that she was suspending her NCR membership because she refuses to be a mere “decoration,” as she wrote on her Facebook page. Kamal al-Labwani froze his membership because “the NCR is not an electoral body and cannot elect a prime minister for the Syrians.” The NCR also lost spokesman Walid al-Bunni, who froze his membership “to protest the timing and the method that the NCR used to form a majority among a nonelected body.”

We should not expect much from the group that has not yet decided whether it will work alongside Khatib inside the NCR. It is not yet clear whether he will resign following the Qataris’ imposition of a choice he had publicly rejected. Khatib has a difficult decision to make in order to stay at his post. After his election, Hitto gave a speech reversing Khatib’s initiative to negotiate with the Syrian regime. Khatib had given up on the military option and is in favor of negotiating with the Syrian regime. Khatib still enjoys American and popular support for his negotiation initiative and has a lot more Syrian legitimacy than Hitto, whom the Qataris brought out of nowhere.

Others also are facing the tough choice of whether to stay or leave. Among them is Algerian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi; his staying on as UN peace envoy to Syria depends on whether the Russian-American understanding holds fast in front of the Qatari attack and the imposition of a temporary government that favors the military solution alone. A figure close to Brahimi said, “Qatar is spoiling our work and our mission.”

Brahimi and his team met in Cairo. A source said, “The formation of a temporary government threatens the idea of reaching a political solution by means of negotiations and sabotages Brahimi’s mission.” The source added that Brahimi is not certain whether the Qataris will go all the way in threatening Brahimi’s mission or whether the temporary government, in spite of its “sovereign” character, will lead to the emergence of two Syrian governments.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a telephone conversation with Brahimi over the developments in Syria. “The two parties discussed the Syrian issue in light of the trend within the Syrian opposition abroad and the Arab League to reject dialogue with the Syrian government despite the agreements mentioned in the Geneva Accord on June 30, 2012, on forming a transitional administration on the basis of consensus between the Syrian government and the opposition,” the statement said.

In another development, Assad made a surprise visit to a fine-arts educational center in east Damascus, where the Syrian president paid tribute to the parents of students who died in the conflict.

The president’s information office said on its website and Facebook page that the Education Ministry was honoring the parents of students who were martyred by terrorist acts.

Assad told the parents: “Syria today is wounded. Everybody has lost a relative, whether a brother, father or mother. But that is not like losing a son. Everything that is happening to us will not weaken us. The battle is one of will and steadfastness. We will be able to protect the citizens given how strong we are.”

Assad also said, “Syrians are drawing strength from the families of the martyrs. Syria is steadfast and so are its people, who are known to support each other during hard times and stand united so that Syria is always strong and victorious.”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mohammad Ballout