Syrian Opposition Meets To Prepare for Geneva II

The Syrian opposition began a three-day meeting in Istanbul on May 24, in which its various groups will try to address pressing issues in preparation for the coming Geneva negotiations.

al-monitor George Sabra (L), a veteran Christian opposition figure and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, speaks during the opening session of a meeting of members of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, May 23, 2013. Former coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib is at center. Photo by REUTERS/Bulent Kilic/Pool.

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syrian, moaz al-khatib, istanbul, geneva

May 24, 2013

In its meeting in Istanbul, the Syrian opposition will have three days to determine the future of the Syrian National Coalition, expand it and take a definitive decision concerning the call for negotiations in Geneva.

The coalition’s agenda no longer includes discussing the formation of the interim government — a task entrusted to Ghassan Hitto ... [two] months ago. Yet the decision to stop talking about this matter for now caused a great row and added divisions within the Syrian Coalition.

Imposed by the Qataris on the coalition, Hitto, the Syrian-American technocrat with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has fallen victim to the dispute raging between Qatar and Saudi Arabia for control over the coalition and interim government’s decisions. He also had to contend with commander of the Free Syrian Army Selim Idriss’ insistence — with Saudi backing — for parity of representation in the coalition’s council, prior to taking part in a government that never materialized after four months of futile negotiations.

The conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia for control over the Syrian National Coalition led, during recent weeks, to the coalition’s largest bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, losing some of its power to govern and impose its political agenda on the coalition’s bodies. This political agenda includes the Brotherhood’s rejection of any dialogue or negotiations with the Syrian regime. As a result, the coalition now has a better chance to do away with this demand in Istanbul.

For months now, coalition members have been divided and polarized into two groups: those with animosity towards the Brotherhood and those who support it. Efforts are thus underway to reduce the Brotherhood’s influence through a plan backed by Saudi Arabia to expand the coalition by adding to its ranks 25 new secular, liberal, leftist, female and minority representatives.

A prominent opposition figure said that the head of Saudi Intelligence, Bandar bin Sultan, was personally supervising the task of reforming the opposition through a series of meetings held in Riyadh with coalition officials. This was aimed at moving the decision making process pertaining to Syria from Doha to Saudi Arabia, and the formation of an opposition bloc equal in influence and importance to the Brotherhood.

There has been a decline in the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to decide the fate of the coalition — as was apparent by its failure to prevent a leftist expansion thereof. The Brotherhood’s nascent weakness will not be enough to facilitate this expansion, which faces obstacles caused by divisions among liberal and secular movements, as well as competition between two of the opposition’s main representatives — Michel Kilo and Riad Seif, the coalition’s vice president. This is in addition to Saudi-Qatari bickering concerning the names of new members and the division of power between the two Gulf caretakers.

Kilo had endorsed, one month ago, a list formed in Paris and comprised of 25 names for inclusion in the coalition. But Kilo’s list was met head-on with an opposing one submitted by Seif, and the latter’s rejection of some of Kilo’s candidates. Seif refuses to allow some of those on Kilo’s list into a coalition that he considers his brainchild, and which rose to prominence after the Syrian National Council’s (SNC) failure to unify the opposition.

The Istanbul meeting will then be the scene for compromises meant to determine the final list of new candidates whose inclusion would give the secular liberal camp a majority representation of 60% compared to 40% to the Islamists comprised of the many faces of the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated factions. The latter include the Ahmad Ramadan-led National Working Group, or the Watan faction established by Brotherhood youth.

The Istanbul conference must also decide who would succeed Moaz al-Khatib as the coalition’s president. The expectation is that George Sabra’s interim presidency will end after having survived for a few short weeks. This is because the Qataris aspire to maintain the presence of a figure close to them at the head of the main opposition body, following the temporary reduction of the Brotherhood’s influence within it as a result of American, Western, and Saudi pressure meant to give precedence to secular and liberal figures.

The presidency of the coalition is expected to go to Mustafa al-Sabbagh, who is a Syrian businessman with close ties to Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid al-Attiyah. Sabbagh was imposed by the Qataris to head the 15-member Local Councils bloc, which they nominated for coalition membership to create an influential bloc capable of opposing other member blocs. Also increasing are the chances of former SNC President Burhan Ghalioun to head the coalition. But people close to him say that he will not submit his candidacy for the post unless the majority ask him to do so. And the entry of additional liberal figures into the coalition may undermine his efforts, unless the alliance that previously led him to the presidency of the SNC is renewed between Islamists and Liberals.

Had it not been for the time constraints imposed by the Geneva II conference and the Russian-American understanding, the Syrian opposition might have faced more intense disagreements pertaining to the best manner by which the Muslim Brotherhood should be contained, as well as the issues of expanding the coalition and the formation of the interim government. The new, expanded coalition will not have to decide whether it accepts to negotiate with the regime in Geneva [for that is a forlorn conclusion], but will have, in fact, to name the members of the coalition delegation that will partake in those negotiations.

A Western diplomat stated that the conference that Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, will launch in Geneva, will not take place prior to the third week of next June, as technical preparations have yet to be concluded.

Furthermore, deputy UN envoy Nasser al-Kidwa will be present in Istanbul, and will monitor discussions pertaining to the formation of the opposition delegation to Geneva; to which the coalition is only entitled to name one third of the members.

Despite objections expressed by opposition figure George Sabra about a National Coordination Committee (NCC) delegation attending the international conference, the NCC’s place in Geneva is guaranteed by the Russian-American understanding, as are the places of other internal opposition factions affiliated with it. But it is unclear if the coalition will succeed in choosing its representatives to Geneva in Istanbul, or whether it will have to let this decision be taken in subsequent full-fledged or small-scale meetings.

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