Sectarianism, Saudi-Qatar Jostling Prevail in Syrian Opposition

The Syrian opposition is currently divided along sectarian lines as international backers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to compete for influence, writes Mohammad Ballout.

al-monitor Demonstrators chant slogans, hold banners and wave flags during a protest against Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo, April 5, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.

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syrian opposition, syrian, sectarianism in syria, sectarianism, saudi, qatar, lakhdar brahimi, arab league

Apr 5, 2013

The Syrian opposition finds itself at a standstill, following the moment of rapture when the National Coalition appropriated Syria’s seat at the Arab League.

The pace of consultations within the coalition points to a lack of urgency in moving forward toward the next step of forming an “interim government,” following the appointment of Ghassan Hito as its head. The task of forming the government is hindered by an American and Qatari insistence on nominating people who would help restructure and expand its level of representation and legitimacy, so that posts and ministries are more equitably divided. It also awaits a Qatari-Saudi consensus on the manner in which Hito’s government would be run, and the nature of that government: technocratic or political.

The Saudis have put all their media and financial potential at the service of the Syrian opposition, with the aim of reducing Qatar’s monopoly over the opposition, to the point of encouraging and enlisting secularists in their fight with Doha. Furthermore, the Americans, in the last few days, have also requested that the formation process be put on hold, as a result of it becoming a great point of contention between the different political and military Syrian opposition factions.

The delay in forming the government is not solely caused by the lack of answers to these issues; the coalition itself, which is considered the reference point for the government, will not be able to survive much longer if the Qataris continue running it in the same confrontational manner they used to force the appointment of Ghassan Hito as prime minister, and them imposing, with the help of their Muslim Brotherhood allies, on the Syrian opposition.

Additionally, the faction that endorses the quick formation of a government and calls for the northern part of Syria to be put under its control is nothing more now than an effective minority alliance comprising the Brotherhood and Doha. The Qataris, along with the Mustafa Al-Sabbagh and Brotherhood blocs, now possess approximately 40 votes, giving them the majority needed to impose their will on the coalition.

The list of oppositionists is composed of various factions, the most important of which being the Unified Military Councils, which rejected Hito’s appointment, and still refuse to move forward in the formation of any government until the coalition is properly expanded. The president of the coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, and his vice president, Riad Seif, are also among them, along with a group of nine who froze their memberships in the coalition. These include Kamal al-Labwani, Walid al-Bunni, Marwan Hajj Rifai and Mohammed al-Assi al-Jarba. But this group of people lacks a common vision on contentious issues.

While Khatib espouses a forceful, nationalistic discourse and possesses a great deal of independence, allowing him to revolt against the Qataris to the point of demanding that a negotiated settlement be reached [for the Syrian crisis], and criticizing Qatari meddling in the opposition’s affairs; he seems reluctant to translate his positions into a real break with the coalition, the Brotherhood and the Qataris. Such a break would free the opposition from their domination, allowing him to form an alliance with internal opposition factions that support a negotiated settlement.

The aforementioned list of dissenters also includes newcomers representing different sectarian and ethnic agendas, which is unheard of in the Syrian political scene. For, in the past few weeks, many factions, both Western and Arab, have strived to include representatives of sectarian communities in conferences held in Cairo and Istanbul, purportedly representing Alawite, Christian or Turkmen interests, so that they may be included in the coalition and increase its legitimacy.

This gathering of sects represents the Western perception of what a solution for Syria might be. That perception assumes that toppling the regime requires that minorities desert it, and those afraid be reassured, by giving them important roles to play inside the coalition, without that affecting the situation on the ground — at least in relation to the level of influence and power that each of them would possess based on the assumptions being made at the British, French and American foreign ministries. Those supervising the Syrian issue at all three ministries have believed, ever since they created the coalition, that giving it legitimacy requires the inclusion of religious sects and minorities in its makeup. This notion was clearly expressed by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, when she criticized and proclaimed the death of the National Council for its failure to attract minorities.

Opponents of Qatari and Brotherhood domination have no avenue but to try and infiltrate the coalition, overwhelming it from the inside with a new opposition bloc formed of minorities, women and representatives of civil society, while betting on those groups’ intrinsic animosity toward the Brotherhood. It is worth noting, however, that the Brotherhood was the first group to exploit political piety and hide behind secular facades such as Burhan Ghalioun, or Christian ones such as Georges Sabra, allowing them to assume the presidency of the National Council. As a result, those trying to contain the Brotherhood espoused the slogan of expanding the coalition and raising its membership from 66 to 100, thus putting on the back burner the issue of the formation of the government in order to prevent the Brotherhood from spreading its political and administrative control over the areas that would be administered by such an interim government. This would result in those areas being transformed into a Brotherhood entity.

The opposition says that the Brotherhood couldn’t care less about Syria being partitioned. They cite the deputy head of the group, Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, who said that he backs the establishment of a state in northern Syria with Aleppo as its capital, and the administration of whatever land can be conquered, without waiting for a military takeover of Damascus.

One Syrian opposition figure attributed the current state of affairs to the conflict mutating from a revolution to a struggle for power. He said that the coalition’s stance seems to emanate from the probability that Syria will be indefinitely ruled by two different governments, or maybe even partitioned. He stated that the peril lies in the fact that it might be difficult to reunite the different ensuing states. He conveyed Khatib’s belief that the real danger was not in separating the country’s north from its south, but in the refusal of some regions controlled by the opposition to submit to the authority of any new government.

But the condition of expanding the coalition before forming the “governmen, while it serves as a lifeline for those opposing the Brotherhood from the inside, is a crude and illogical tactic. Expanding the coalition based on sectarian affiliations would change nothing in its function, since the latter is defined by the countries that sponsored the coalition’s formation — and are still financing it, and refuse to change their agendas.

According to Syrian opposition sources, next week will witness meetings by experts on Syrian affairs at the foreign ministries of eleven countries that attended the Friends of Syria conference. These include Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. They will all study the future of the coalition, the formation of a government, its funding and the ongoing armament efforts.

The international and Arab envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned that recognizing the coalition and attempts to surrender Syria’s seat to the coalition at the Organization of the Islamic Conference, among others, will only lead to the failure of any political solution. He stated, “Any further steps toward recognizing the Syrian opposition might lead to added intransigence on the part of the Syrian regime, which still is endowed with superior military might in the face of the Syrian revolution; ultimately resulting in the failure of any political solution.”

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