A coordinated attack has targeted the Muslim Brotherhood faction within the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia, the secularists and liberals stand against the Brotherhood in an attempt to restructure the Syrian opposition abroad.
The alliance between Saudi Arabia and Syrian democratic and secular factions heralded a broad attack aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood within the opposition Syrian National Coalition. An alliance has been established through various meetings held during past weeks, to be strengthened by the Syrian democratic consultative meeting scheduled for the end of this week in Cairo. The alliance also cast its shadow over another attack initiated by the Free Syrian Army’s chief of staff, Major General Salim Idris, two days ago, when he demanded that the Brotherhood equally share control of the Coalition, and that the head of the Interim government, Ghassan Hitto, be dismissed, within a one week period.
This period in the political life of the Syrian opposition has been characterized by an overlapping Saudi-liberal obsession: A reduction of the Muslim Brotherhood’s disproportionate influence, which surpasses its real presence in the “revolution,” and the thwarting of the Brotherhood’s plans to control it. But the process of natural selection was not the real engine that drove objections against the Brotherhood rise in the course of the [Syrian] crisis, nor did those objections come as a result of purely Syrian wishes; most opposition players, with the exception of a very small number of them, orbit around the two main bodies that vie for control over Damascus: namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Ever since the Brotherhood seized control of the National Council, and following failed attempts to excise it from the coalition, the opposition factions rejecting the Brotherhood’s rise within the Syrian opposition naturally gravitated toward Saudi Arabia, which, with the help of secular and democratic Syrian opposition factions, is trying to contain the Qatari advance in the Levant, while striving to put an end to the Brotherhood’s domination of the coalition, now that the latter had become the only internationally recognized avenue that serves as a conduit for the relations of internal opposition factions with international powers and assistance funds. It is a coalition that is also projected to play a key role in the post-Assad period.
In the last 10 days, three Saudi-driven attempts have been made to push liberals and secularists to change the course of events inside the coalition and impose a list of 25 names proposed by a secular democratic meeting held in Paris two weeks ago. Contributing in the election of the list were coalition members who previously had their memberships voluntarily suspended in the organization; such as Kamal al-Labwani, Walid al-Bunni, and prominent opposition figure Michel Kilo. Female, minoritarian, leftist and Kurdish names were thus elected to form a bloc that would restore balance to the coalition and oppose the Brotherhood and Mustafa al-Sabbagh’s Qatar affiliated blocs.
In its meeting held on April 26 in Istanbul, the coalition thwarted a clear secular Saudi attempt to reduce the Brotherhood’s influence and force it into sharing the decision-making process by rejecting the inclusion of the proposed list to its membership roster. The Istanbul failure was followed by other attempts in Vienna and Riyadh, where the Saudis directly intervened with the Qataris.
Bandar bin Sultan and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal successively met with coalition leadership figures that included Georges Sabra, Farouk Taifour, Abdel Ahad Stefou and Suhair al-Atassi, to request that direct coordination between Riyadh and the coalition be bolstered without the need to go through the Qatari channel. The Saudis also anticipated the Russian-American agreement to return to the Geneva Declaration by inviting their guests to prepare for negotiations with the regime, and the possibility of having to make concessions, while reducing the influence of jihadist and Salafist factions.
A prominent Syrian figure who took part in the negotiations said that Prince Bandar bin Sultan asked for the adoption of a compromise that would satisfy the secularists through the expansion of the coalition through the inclusion of the new list of members. Further talks were held with the Qataris for them to name some minority members to the coalition, but the deal fell through, and the issue was postponed until after the democratic forces’ consultative meeting, which will make these forces hard to ignore, and will make the inclusion of their list of member candidates to the coalition very difficult to reject.
On the eve of its conference in Cairo, the democratic movement is betting that, once its formation is announced and it becomes the only and most powerful secular democratic entity, the list of names it presented to the Muslim Brotherhood will be accepted, thus garnering it adequate and equal representation, as well as meaningful Saudi support.
The organizers of the Cairo meeting go so far as to say that they will not change its date even if it coincides with that of the coalition’s meeting in Istanbul, and that the coalition will have to postpone its meeting so that the secularists may be able to attend it and take part in the vote to elect its new president, most probably Burhan Ghalioun.
A prominent Syrian secular opposition figure in Paris complained that the coalition’s framework was set up in such a manner that prevented the secular viewpoint from being adopted; adding that it was no longer permissible that coalition membership be predicated on the outcome of the Saudi-Qatari conflict over its presidency. He further said that Kamal al-Labwani, Wahid Sakr, and Ammar al-Korbi now favored the Saudi point of view, and that former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was playing the role of harmonizer and problem solver within the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian dissident attributed the secular movement’s weakness inside the opposition and its reliance on the support of Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Qatar on the reluctance of the Americans in particular to open communication channels with secular figures, and their ambassador Robert Ford’s conviction that the balance of power on the ground necessitated that they deal with the dominant and better organized Brotherhood movement within the Syrian “revolution” and rely on it to contain the rise of jihadist Salafism.
The Qatari-Saudi dispute over the secularists, the expansion of the coalition, and the dismissal of Ghassan Hitto whom the Unified Military Council objects to, drove the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) leadership to leak cautionary information to the coalition and Hitto, thus defining the former’s agenda in next Saturday’s meeting in Istanbul. According to the leak, Salim Idris gave the coalition one week to respond in writing to his demands that civilian and military members of the fighting forces be given half the coalition seats, and that the naming of the interior and defense ministers be postponed until after the expansion of the coalition, with a further implicit warning for the need to remove Hitto from office.
In the meantime, and from Madrid, the resignation of the president of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is preparing himself for a strong comeback to the opposition’s forefront, while exploring the possibility of forming a bloc that he lacked when he still was at the head of the coalition, which he could potentially count on to champion his vision for a negotiated solution [to the crisis]. Khatib and more than 40 bodies and opposition figures will be in Madrid on May 20 and 21 to attend a meeting organized by the opposition Syrian National Development Party under the sponsorship of the Spanish Foreign Ministry.
It is expected that the Madrid meeting will serve as a platform for Khatib to present his draft political solution, and will be more than just a chance to launch a new opposition framework. It is as yet unclear if Khatib will be able to garner the same support he received upon introducing his “Facebook” initiative for dialogue with the regime on lesser terms than those prescribed in the Geneva Declaration; an initiative that he failed to develop and transform into practical actions in the face of National Council and Coalition members who immediately rejected it, and that the regime failed to exploit by favorably responding to its few modest preconditions.
Khatib will have to test the negotiating appetite of both the opposition and regime; especially considering that he comes to Madrid preceded by media leaks about contacts with businessmen close to the regime, aimed at improving the prospects of any new negotiation initiatives. It is likely that he will work toward establishing a new movement that includes members of the Damascus Scholars Association, the National Development Party, Damascus-based businessmen, and members of the middle class; thus transforming them from a silent bloc that opposes the regime but rejects violence and a similar fate for Damascus as that of Aleppo, to an active one that relies on Khatib’s moderation to get its voice heard. The former Imam will therefore have to assess whatever remains of Western support for his negotiations-based philosophy following his departure from the coalition; that support tcannot be guaranteed.
The secretary-general of the National Development Party, Zaher Saad al-Deen said that the goal of the two days in Madrid will be to “accelerate the screening process inside the opposition” to determine the identities of those who favor a political solution and those who back a military one. But “we also respect the Free Syrian Army which abides by the military chain of command and accepts the Geneva Declaration.”
In attendance in Madrid will be the Coordination Committee’s Hassan Abdel Azim, the Syrian National Movement’s Hassan al-Shalabi, Michel Kilo, Samira al-Masalmeh, Major General Mohammad al-Fares, Bassam al-Malak from the Free Syrian Association, Aref Dalila, Mustafa al-Kayali, Saad al-Mushref representing Syrian clans and the National Collective, Mohammed al-Mazid al-Terkawi representing the Terkawi clans, Samir al-Taki from the Center for Strategic Study, Nibras al-Fadel, Riad Naasan al-Agha, Jamal Suleiman, Abdel Kader al-Katani from the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, in addition to representatives of the Damascus Scholars Association, as well as other independent national and opposition figures.