25 May 2013

Inside Syrian opposition's talks in Turkey

Please see the updates at the bottom under "addendum"  
The Syrian opposition is holding talks in Turkey to restructure and expand the National Coalition (NC). As I reported earlier this month, the talks follow a visit by 12 members of the NC to Riyadh this month. It’s important to remember here that the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, met the Saudi foreign minister in one-to-one talks and agreed to the expansion plans - the members even suggested that Ahmed Touma becomes the NC but of course after "election".

On Thursday the NC members, including Tayfour and the NC’s secretary general Mustafa Al Sabbagh, agreed to include some 32 new members into the coalition as part of the expansion. The new members would represent individuals and forces from outside the coalition, mainly Michel Kilo and allies.
But on Friday, Al Sabbagh came back and said that he and others refused the plan. They offered an alternative plan: 21 new seats will be added; seven for Michel Kilo and his allies, seven for representatives of “local councils”, and seven for the Muslim Brotherhood. That means the Muslim Brotherhood will effectively get two thirds of the new expansion plan. Not only does the MB want to reduce the number of new seats but it also wants to use the occasion to expand its influence further. How is that?
“Local councils” are already represented in the NC by Al Sabbagh, a Syrian businessman and Islamist backed by Qatar and MB. He was appointed as the Coalition’s Secretary General in November after he claimed that he and a group of men represented various areas in Syria. I wrote this before: "The appointment of Mustafa Sabbagh as the National Coalition's secretary general came after he showed up in Doha, before the formation of the coalition in November, with 16 people he falsely claimed represented provincial councils across Syria. In fact many of them were his employees in Saudi Arabia, or his relatives."
It gets better. Qatar, Turkey and MB are insisting that Al Sabbagh heads the NC. Syrians know who Al Sabbagh is and, if that happens, the move will be self-defeating – the point is to make the coalition more representative to help it to build credibility as the world consider options for solving the Syrian conflict. American, French and Gulf representatives are still trying to push the coalition to let go of Al Sabbagh and accept the expansion plan. The MB, Qatar and Turkey are digging in their heels.
The MB can insist on saving its influence within the coalition but one thing is clear: support for the Syrian opposition is on hold until the coalition is expanded. The core group of the Friends of Syria insists that the coalition must be expanded and representative if any help is to be provided or steps are to be taken.
This is not the first time that Qatar's allies within the National Coalition go back on their words shortly after they agree on something. During talks in Cairo to restructure the Syrian National Council in July last year, Tayfour sat with US ambassador Robert Ford for two hours. He finally agreed to the plan but went back on his word shortly after – apparently after he spoke to Qatar.
The Brotherhood has consistently opposed any plan to reform the political bodies, for a rundown of how it has done so, read my article here. The dominance of the Brotherhood over the political and military bodies was made possible by interferences from countries like Qatar and Turkey. The Brotherhood has not dominated these entities because of its popular base or because Syrians chose them.
It seems that pressure from outside powers to reverse that dominance will not work unless the Brotherhood has no choice, in the same way that any political solution will not work unless Assad has no choice.

Addendum

Saturday: The talks are expected to be finalised tonight  (Saturday) or probably tomorrow morning.  Still, the talks can drag on, even be shelved for now. No progress has been made. But two important developments are worth mentioning.

The first one is that 12 prominent members of the non-Brotherhood groups signed a document/ultimatum yesterday vowing to withdraw from the Coalition if the Brotherhood and its allies do not agree to the expansion plan.

The second one is that the Brotherhood presented a new idea (like amazing idea): George Sabra becomes the lead of the National Coalition, Ghassan Hitto remains the prime minister of the interim government and Mustafa Al Sabbagh as the NC's general secretary for another six months. So basically, if more members are to be added, these three must lead the coalition and the interim government.

Six months, an interesting period. The pressure from Geneva 2 organisers might be the reason for insisting on this for now. They probably think that by that time things would be clearer. Both the Qataris and the Brotherhood promised recently (first week of this month) that they would not stand against any expansion plan. It's unclear what has changed since. 

But there is still pressure on the Brotherhood and its allies to accept the expansion plan. Although far-fetched, they might agree on some plan tonight or tomorrow. Because all sides disagree deeply on all issues, the talks may drag on. But because many members threatened to withdraw, the talks might be delayed as a way to avoid such an outcome. We will see what happens over the coming days.

Sunday: (see tweets from @the_47th on this too) Al Sabbagh is now the one digging in his heels and blocking the expansion of the National Coalition. He insists on representing one third of the new seats. He wants to remain the  Coalition's secretary general AND gets one third for any expansion according to this quota he set:  one seat for any two new seats.

His insistence upset most of the attendants. When he was asked in front of the foreign ambassadors: "What is your priority? Especially that we are facing the challenges of Geneva 2. These demands will lead to the failure of the plan or even the fracture of the coalition which might consequently lead to Bashar Al Assad staying in power". He answered with this (literally): "My conditions are more important and urgent".

There is also this update from @The_47th: "I heard that no decision will be made (or letting go from MB) until they see if EU really lifts ban on arming". That could mean that Al Sabbagh, and the Qataris and Brotherhood behind him, want to postpone the talks to avoid the expansion. As I mentioned above, they are under so much pressure to include more forces and some 12 prominent members threatened to withdraw which will potentially lead to the collapse of the coalition; so one way to avoid this and avoid a campaign against them, they probably came up with that populist demand: we won't accept any expansion until the EU lifts the embargo on arms to the opposition. What does that have to do with making the coalition more representative?

One final note for now: why are members insisting on "votes" to pass any plan. Isn't the point that the current people who can vote represent a specific group and its allies? Just absurd.

Stay tuned for more details.. Follow on Twitter

2 comments:

  1. Excellent reporting Hassan.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Will you post another addendum after last night announcement?

    ReplyDelete