Election of new head of Syrian opposition seen as victory for US, Saudi Arabia

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 7, 2013 

— ..The election of new leadership by the umbrella coalition of Syrian opposition figures reflects an internal policy shift toward the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia, according to insiders and policy analysts.

On Saturday in Istanbul, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the group that the United States has designated as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, elected Ahmed Assi al Jarba, to lead the group. Jarba is described as a secular moderate with close tribal and political ties to Saudi Arabia.

The vote was close, reflecting the often contentious and disparate nature of the opposition collation, which was formed last year at the behest of the United States, but which has struggled to organize itself since. Its last leader, Moaz al Khatib, a widely known Syrian cleric, resigned in May after he was criticized within the group for advocating peace talks with the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Jarba’s key task will be uniting the disparate civilian opposition factions into a functioning opposition movement, including the appointment of a government-in-exile that would stand ready to take control of Syria should Assad be forced from office. While the United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the group, it has delivered very little of that aid out of concern that the group is too unstable to spend it wisely, U.S. officials have told McClatchy. While the appointment of a government was to have happened months ago, only a prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, a longtime U.S. resident, has been named.

The group also needs to establish a working relationship with secular rebels under the command of defected Syrian Gen. Salim Idriss, to whom the United States and others have said they will direct military equipment bound for anti-Assad forces.

Considered a secular voice in a movement that has been dominated by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Jarba is a chief of the Shammar tribe, one of the Arab world’s most powerful clans with members stretching from southern Turkey to Saudi Arabia. According to his colleagues, Jarba was often harassed by the regime in the eastern provinces of Syria where his tribe holds the most influence.

He was jailed early in the revolt against Assad, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. After being released from prison in August 2012, he fled to Saudi Arabia, where his tribal connections put him into close touch with senior members of the Saudi intelligence services.

His election was widely seen inside the opposition coalition as a step by the Saudis to take the control of the civilian and armed anti-Assad movement, which until now has been guided primarily by Qatar, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and has also been providing arms to some anti-Assad rebel groups.

“You essentially have a handover from the Qataris to the Saudis,” Amr al Azm, an associate professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio and an official of the opposition coalition who was interviewed by phone from southern Turkey. “They have taken over.”

Azm, an anthropologist by training who taught at the University of Damascus before moving to the United States, described Jarba’s tribe as being both geographically and politically close to the Saudis.

“Now we’ll see what they’re going to do. Are they really going to support him, give him weapons and money? Or are they going to half-heartedly support him? If they support him completely, then this will be a big deal,” he said.

Qatar, which is undergoing a peaceful political transition and which was close to the toppled president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, has begun to withdraw somewhat from its efforts to fund and control various rebel factions. That may be an important development in the U.S. effort to undercut the more radical elements of the Syrian opposition, many of whom had been recipients of Qatari support.

Qatar’s support also came under increasing fire inside Syria as rebel leaders on their payroll often refused to coordinate with rebels who recognize the authority of Idriss’ secular Supreme Military Council.

But what remains a much bigger question is whether Jarba can rid the opposition coalition, whose formal name is the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, of its reputation for fickle incompetence.

“The coalition hasn’t been an efficient institution and has lost much of what little credibility it had on the ground in Syria,” said Ramzy Mardini, an ddjunct Fellow at Iraq’s Institute for Strategic Studies. “But even with new faces at the top, the fundamentals that have underlined its dysfunction might not change. Internal elections can’t suddenly fix what is an organization poorly constructed from its very conception. Its members are divided into camps backed by competing outside powers. They’re ironically competing over power and they’re not even in power.”

In order to succeed, Jarba will have to assert authority over the group and use his mandate from the Saudis to herd the different constituencies which often seem to be working at cross purposes.

“This isn’t a body that works in unison on behalf of the Syrian revolution. It’s a body where different visions of the revolution are competing against each other,” he said. “[If] the new president wishes to be effective, he will need to consolidate power and assert his authority.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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