Serene Assir, AFP
Last updated: 25 May, 2013

Syrian opposition say regional power games stall meeting

A Saudi-led bid to dilute the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over Syria’s main opposition has thrown the group into disarray, dissidents said Saturday, with some even warning that the power tussle is “killing” the group.

Syria’s main opposition National Coalition has been meeting for three days in Istanbul. Among key items on its agenda was a debate on whether it should hold peace talks with the regime under a US-Russia mooted initiative dubbed Geneva 2.

But a bid by Saudi Arabia to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and to hold sway over the Coalition has overshadowed the debate, dissidents said.

“You have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushing to include up to 30 new members in the National Coalition,” said one Coalition member on condition of anonymity.

“Their goal is to downsize the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over the group,” he said.

“On the other hand you have Turkey, Qatar and to an extent France backing the Coalition as it stands,” he added, describing perceptions that Islamists control the Coalition as “exaggerated”.

Another Coalition member told AFP that Saudi Arabia and the United States have even threatened to cut off support if the opposition refused to admit the new members they were backing.

“We are being threatened that they will not give us any money or even weapons, and even that (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad will stay in power if we don’t allow this expansion.

“This is scandalous. This competition for power is killing the Syrian opposition,” he said on condition of anonymity.

The National Coalition is currently dominated by the Syrian National Council, in which the main political bloc is the Muslim Brotherhood.

A Muslim Brotherhood member of the Coalition, Mohammed Faruk Tayfur, declined to comment when asked about the power tussle.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood’s presence in Syria was crushed by Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, and its Syrian branch has since operated from exile.

Qatar and Turkey, whose leaders are close to the Brotherhood, back the Islamist movement.

Conservative Saudi Arabia however, opposes it and supports more radical Islamist rebel groups on the ground.

Opposition figures see Saudi Arabia as simply seeking to reclaim its historic role of regional powerhouse.

In Istanbul, Saudi Arabia and its allies are pushing the Coalition to admit a new list of members proposed by veteran secular dissident Michel Kilo. If accepted, the Muslim Brotherhood would lose its sway in the Coalition.

But Kilo and his allies have proven to be controversial.

One Coalition member, Samir Nashar, described Kilo’s allies as “too ready to dialogue with the regime, and that’s why we resist his entry”.

But the official command of the rebel Free Syrian Army backs Kilo’s bid.

“Yesterday we were in a meeting with (FSA command chief) Selim Idriss, Michel Kilo and several other patriotic personalities from Kilo’s list. We saw he is a fighter, a patriot,” FSA political and media coordinator Louay Muqdad told AFP.

Kilo’s list reportedly includes several women as well as members of Syria’s numerous ethnic and religious minorities.

“The regional fights for influence and over who gets to go to Geneva 2 is the real issue here,” said a Coalition member who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If Kilo’s list gets accepted, then it will dominate the Coalition. The reason for this deadlock is because everyone wants to call the shots when the Geneva 2 negotiations start,” said a dissident from northern Syria who is not a member of the Coalition.

For him, the infighting is a “reflection of what is happening in Syria now, a sectarian war”.

“It is a war for dominance now between the Sunni majority and the minorities,” he claimed.

Asked why conservative Saudi Arabia was supporting a more liberal list, he said: “They don’t care about ideology. They’re just looking for a way to exert influence.”

Russia, a key backer of Assad, said Friday the regime had agreed “in principle” to attend a US-Russian proposed peace conference.

But the Coalition has so far held fast to its view that no negotiations are possible unless it is given international guarantees that talks would lead to Assad’s departure.

The Damascus government counters that it wants assurances that the president’s fate will not be a subject of debate at any peace talks.

The Coalition, which depends on foreign backing, has long been marred by regional rivalries that play out through disagreements among its members.