Middle East

Qatar-backed bloc may attend National Coalition talks

A picture shows an empty chair of Syria during an Arab foreign ministers meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo on March 9, 2014, to prepare the annual summit of heads of state. (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

AMMAN: A large Qatar-backed bloc plans to rejoin Syria’s opposition National Coalition and may attend the body’s upcoming meeting in Cairo in the next few weeks, officials have said.

The 40-member bloc, which consists mostly of members of the Syrian National Council, and which quit the 120-member coalition before Syrian peace talks began in Geneva in January, said it had returned to confront what it saw as its unfair exclusion from decision-making.

The bloc’s return to the main opposition coalition sets the scene for a clash with the group’s Saudi-backed president.

Haitham al-Maleh, a veteran human rights campaigner who heads the coalition’s legal committee, said the 40 were entitled to attend the body’s next full meeting, which has been delayed but could be held in a few weeks’ time in Cairo.

“I hope they will attend,” Maleh said Sunday. “We are in the midst of a revolution. We are trying to prevent Syria from descending into catastrophe. This is not the time for competition over positions.”

Infighting within the opposition coalition has undermined rebel efforts to take on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and has also played into the hands of rival, more hard-line militant outfits which include some foreigners.

Bickering within the coalition reflects the broader regional rivalry between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other, who have been known to back different, rival rebel brigades.

Tensions rose last week when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in an unprecedented public split between Gulf Arab allies who have fallen out over the role of Islamists in a region in turmoil.

Within the coalition, Qatar’s candidate for the leadership of the group – former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab – narrowly lost out in January to Ahmad Jarba, who enjoys Saudi Arabia’s support.

Jarba faces another leadership vote in July, and coalition sources said the pro-Qatar bloc’s decision to rejoin the opposition appeared to be aimed at curbing his powers.

“We have decided to resume our political activity in the coalition as a single bloc,” the 40 former defectors said in a statement, citing “perilous changes the Syrian revolt is undergoing,” an apparent reference to rebel infighting.

A coalition official, who asked not to be identified, warned that the bloc’s return could reignite tensions.

“Jarba is now expected to alter the composition of the FSA members to his advantage and strengthen his control of the coalition. The 40 have returned to try to prevent his re-election when it comes up on July 4,” the official said.

A pro-Jarba opposition source added: “I think Jarba would be making a mistake if he lets the 40 rejoin. He is being urged by his allies not to allow them back in.”

Coalition spokesman Munzer Aqbiq declined to comment.

The most influential members of the dissident bloc are Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman who is Qatar’s point man in the coalition, and Hijab, the most senior figure to defect from Assad’s government since the revolt began.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 11, 2014, on page 8.




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