BEIRUT: The beleaguered Syrian National Coalition was thrown into further disarray Tuesday after dozens of members resigned to protest the re-election of the incumbent president over the weekend, and the group’s position on proposed U.S-Russian backed peace talks in Switzerland.
The coalition was meeting for an extended third day of talks in Turkey after prominent members quit the group following the election of Ahmad Jarba for a second term Friday.
Divisions within the 120-member coalition were deepened when dozens of high profile members from some five factions resigned over what they said was vote-buying and pressure to attend the proposed negotiations with the Syrian regime at the Swiss talks, dubbed “Geneva II.”
Jarba, who was first elected as president with Saudi Arabia’s backing in July, was voted in for a second term with 65 votes late Friday, beating his only rival, defected Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who won 52 of the coalition members’ votes.
Hijab had secured the support of a powerful faction backed by Qatar and Turkey, and aligned with power broker Mustafa Sabbagh, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Badr Jammous was re-elected secretary-general, while Abdel-Hakim Bashar, the Brotherhood’s Farouk Tayfour, and independent Nora al-Amir were elected vice presidents.
The coalition delayed the election of the political bureau of the group due to the resignations, a coalition source told The Daily Star from the meeting hall in Turkey. He was speaking on condition of anonymity after a media blackout was imposed.
The coalition had also been expected to settle on a final answer on attendance at Geneva II talks but that too was delayed, according to a member of the political bureau, Monzer Makhous.
He said Tuesday’s meetings focused on the group’s internal organization as well as Geneva, but that elections had been delayed. Another meeting to determine the position on Geneva will be held in two weeks’ time, he added.
Geneva II is scheduled to kick off Jan. 22. The U.S. and the West have urged the opposition to unite to attend talks. However, the opposition is divided, with many demanding guarantees the talks will be geared toward President Bashar Assad’s ouster. The regime says talks must be held without conditions and that Assad’s departure is not up for discussion.
Complicating matters further is the coalition’s weak influence inside Syria. Islamist groups that hold large swathes of territory reject Geneva and do not recognize the coalition, or the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.
Those who quit the coalition say the Jarba bloc is intent on going to Geneva despite the lack of guarantees demanded by the opposition.
Among those who quit the group was Kamal Labwani, a veteran dissident and a member of the National Change Current, who is aligned with Hijab. He said some 40 members resigned in protest over the election.
“Jarba means Geneva means money,” he said.
“The coalition is trying to trick us. There is no assurance that they will bring down the regime at Geneva,” he said, adding that Jarba had been offering assurances to the U.N., the U.S. and Russia, without consultation with the coalition.
“Most Syrian people don’t want Geneva. We don’t need to convince ourselves to go to Geneva, we need to convince the Syrian people.”
Underscoring that predicament, many of those who resigned were en route to Spain to attend a meeting of some 200 opposition supporters, including those from inside Syria, and, it was hoped, representatives of the Islamist opposition fighters.
Labwani said the Cordoba meeting on Jan. 9 and 10 was aimed at establishing a consensus stance on Geneva, expecting that participation would be rejected.