Posted by Matthew Barber on Monday, May 27th, 2013
Appointment of New Members Reversed
The opposition talks in Turkey have ended in disappointment for many. A Reuters article reports:
A crisis in Syria’s opposition deepened on Monday when liberals were offered only token representation, undermining international efforts to lend the Islamist-dominated alliance greater support.
To the dismay of envoys of Western and Arab nations monitoring four days of opposition talks in Istanbul, the 60-member Syrian National Coalition thwarted a deal to admit a liberal bloc headed by opposition campaigner Michel Kilo.
Liberals were not the only ones disappointed. In the last post, I revealed Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi’s appointment to the National Council as its first major Sufi figure. This appointment was a fact over a month ago, confirmed by the NC’s Membership Committee, and this was reaffirmed to Sheikh Ya’qoubi personally in April by both Mu’az al-Khatib and Riad Seif, but it was not announced publicly. The announcement was to be made officially at a meeting of the General Assembly. Later, the Coalition’s Political Council met in early May and confirmed a total of 31 new members. Some new members traveled to Turkey at that time for a meeting of the General Assembly, but the meeting was postponed due to political arguments. For the current talks that have just been held, the 31 members traveled again to Istanbul, had rooms booked for them and were officially hosted in anticipation of the announcement of their membership. Ostensibly for the preparation ahead of the Geneva 2 conference (in which the regime and opposition could actually sit at the same table, if both would agree to such), the talks descended into significant intrigue regarding the expansion of the Coalition. Scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, the quarreling didn’t end until early Monday morning. In a major reversal of earlier decisions, the membership of many new members was denied (or revoked). Pending confirmation, it seems that only 8 of the original 31 have been publicly designated as new members, despite previous affirmations of membership. Though it seems unsurprising that the Coalition would go back on its word, it is nevertheless striking that it would occur to this degree. Such a sweeping, last-minute reversal was unexpected by many.
At least one new Muslim Brotherhood figure has been appointed, and consistent with the previous pattern, there is no representation of the Sufi, Sunni ‘ulema who would represent far greater numbers of Syrians.
The failure to broaden the coalition, in which Qatar and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood has been playing the driving role, could undermine Saudi Arabian support for the revolt and raise the specter of a rivalry among Gulf powers that could further weaken the opposition.
Its Western backers have pressured the Coalition to resolve its divisions and expand to include more liberals to counter domination by Islamists. The plan also had support from Saudi Arabia, which had been preparing to assume a bigger role in coalition politics and has been uneasy about the rise of Qatar’s influence, coalition insiders said.
Its apparent failure to do so came hours before the European Union was scheduled at a meeting in Brussels to discuss lifting an arms embargo that could allow weapons to reach rebel fighters in Syria seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
… Kilo’s group received an offer of only five seats – instead of the more than 20 it had been looking for – after a session in Turkey that stretched nearly to dawn, coalition sources said.
The move left the Coalition controlled by a faction loyal to Qatari-backed Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. That group led resistance to the rule of Assad’s late father in the 1980s, when thousands of its members were tortured and executed.
“We were talking about 25 names as the basis for our negotiations, then there was agreement on 22 and then the number dropped to 20, then to 18, then to 15, then to five,” Kilo said, addressing the Coalition. “I do not think you have a desire to cooperate and hold our extended hand. … We wish you all the best.”
A member of the Kilo camp said his bloc would meet later to decide whether to withdraw from the opposition meeting, although he said the coalition may still make a better offer.
Please see this good article by Hassan Hassan: Inside Syrian opposition’s talks in Turkey:
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.
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.
While the diplomatic grouping known as the Friends of Syria met in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss a U.S.-Russian plan for peace talks, a low-key yet perhaps equally important gathering was being quietly held in Istanbul between Saudi officials and half of the 30 members of the Free Syrian Army’s Higher Military Command, which claims to represent most of the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The informal talks, which were held at a seaside hotel, marked the first gathering of the rebel group’s Military Command and Saudi officials since, according to senior members of the Military Command, Saudi Arabia stepped up earlier this month to become the main source of arms to the rebels. In so doing they nudged aside the smaller Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which had been the main supplier of weapons to the opposition since early 2012. Saudi officials have simply been meeting with the rebels on their own, without involving the Qataris.
The change is significant because Qatar and Saudi Arabia each favor different rebel factions. The Qataris have backed more Islamist rebel groups, while the Saudis—despite Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative form of government—have opted to support more moderate groups that may have an Islamist hue but are not considered conservative. The strong conservative Islamist current within rebel ranks may be weakened if support is increased to more moderate factions.
… All of the commanders TIME spoke to were optimistic that the Saudis would ferry more help to more moderate groups, but few thought the Qataris would stop supplying their favored battalions. “The difference is that the battalions who are against Jabhat al-Nusra will be strengthened,” said one young commander. “A fight with Jabhat al-Nusra is coming, we can no longer delay it.” That’s an unattractive prospect to many in the opposition, which was formed to fight the regime, not fellow rebels.
Both the regime and the opposition have suggested that they could participate in the Geneva 2 talks:
Syria’s foreign minister says President Bashar al-Assad’s government has agreed “in principle” to take part in peace talks in Geneva planned for June. Walid Muallem told reporters in Baghdad that the conference was “a good opportunity for a political solution to the crisis in Syria”. Russia and the US hope the talks will bring a negotiated end to the violence.
Syria’s main opposition coalition has said it is willing to take part if President Bashar al-Assad steps down.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition indicated Sunday they are interested in a peace conference next month in Geneva, Switzerland, though both sides tempered any optimism about the summit with caveats.
“We have in principle agreed to participate in Geneva, pending hearing more clarity about the purpose and the intentions of the Syrian regime — the Assad regime. So far, the signals have been not positive,” coalition spokesman Louay Safi said from Istanbul, where opposition leaders have been meeting to discuss the pending summit and to determine new leadership for the coalition.
“The Assad regime has to make it clear that they are there to engage in talks about transition to democracy, and as part of Geneva, understanding that would mean that all the powers that resides today with Bashar al-Assad will be given to the transitional government. Until this point, this is not clear,” he said.
Abdul Basit Seida, a senior member of the group meeting in Istanbul, said in a statement Sunday: “Talks are still ongoing with no final resolution. There is also no final decision yet on attending the conference in Geneva.”
The Syrian government has tentatively agreed to the June peace conference, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said earlier Sunday.
Speaking at a joint news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, he said, “I informed the Iraqi prime minister of Syria’s decision that the government agreed in principle to send an official delegation to the Geneva peace conference that will take place in June.”
SYRIA’S most powerful ally Russia says the Damascus regime has agreed “in principle” to attend an international peace conference on the crisis that world powers hope will take place in Geneva in June.But on Friday Moscow also criticised Syria’s various opposition groups for presenting tough demands that in some cases included the exclusion of President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives from the negotiations.
… But Lukashevich said reports of a specific date for the conference “cannot be taken seriously” because the ranks of Assad’s foes remained so split. “Demands to immediately name a specific date for the conference without having clarity about who – and with what authority – will speak in the name of the opposition, cannot be taken seriously,” Lukashevich said.
Syria’s main opposition group entered a second day of talks in Istanbul on Friday aimed at finding a joint approach to what has already been been dubbed as the “Geneva 2” conference. The first Geneva meeting in June last year ended in a broad agreement aimed at forming a transition government in Syria and introducing a long-lasting truce. But the deal was never implemented because of disagreements over Assad’s role in the new government and neither side’s decision to lay down their arms.
Lukashevich on Friday condemned some opposition leaders for declaring that no talks were possible with Assad still in power. Moscow has insisted that the talks be held without preconditions – a demand that appears to clash with the Damascus regime’s own insistence that Assad’s future not be addressed at the conference.
Lukashevich scorned attempts by the opposition to find a common voice, saying the reports he has seen thus far coming out of Istanbul “have not been encouraging”. “We are again hearing about the precondition that Bashar al-Assad leaves power, and that a government be formed under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Syria’s opposition called Friday on President Bashar al-Assad to prove it is working for a transition of power in the war-torn country, as they gathered in Istanbul to discuss a US-Russian initiative for peace.
“We want to stop the bloodshed. It’s very important for us to have goodwill gestures, and from both sides,” Khaled al-Saleh, spokesman for the Western-backed National Coalition — the main opposition group — told reporters in Istanbul.
“We want to make sure that when we enter those negotiations the bloodshed in Syria will stop,” he added. The call comes hours after key Assad backer Moscow said the Syrian regime is “in principle” willing to join the peace conference proposed by the United States and Russia dubbed “Geneva 2”.
Syria’s outgoing opposition chief published an initiative for his war-torn country on Thursday that would grant President Bashar al-Assad a safe exit, and urged dissident factions to adopt his plan.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib published his initiative on Facebook, as the main National Coalition he headed until March gathered in Istanbul to choose a new leader and discuss a US-Russian peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2.
Under Khatib’s initiative, Assad would have 20 days from Thursday to give “his acceptance of a peaceful transition of authority”.
After accepting, Assad would have one month to hand over power to either Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi or Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa, who would then govern Syria for a transitional period of 100 days.
As part of the transition Khatib envisages, Assad would “leave the country along with five hundred people whom he will select, along with their families and children, to any other country that may choose to host them”.
This is the first time one of Syria’s opposition chiefs has made an offer of political immunity to Assad and key members of his regime.
Syria opposition struggles to forge transition plan – Reuters
Syria’s divided opposition leaders have failed to back a plan by their outgoing leader for President Bashar Al Assad to cede power gradually to end the country’s civil war, highlighting the obstacles to international peace talks expected next month.
The 16-point plan proposed by Muath Al Khatib, who resigned as head of the Western-backed opposition National Coalition in March, urges Al Assad to hand power to his deputy or prime minister and then go abroad with 500 members of his entourage.
Al Khatib’s proposal appeared to win little support from other Syrian opposition figures at a three-day meeting in Istanbul to decide how to respond to a US-Russian proposal to convene peace talks involving Al Assad’s government next month.
The coalition is under international pressure to resolve internal divisions ahead of a conference Washington and Moscow see as crucial to hopes of ending two years of civil war which has allowed Al Qaida linked militants a growing role in Syria.
Syria’s fractious opposition scrambled to agree a new leadership on Friday in a bid to present a coherent front at peace talks which the United States and Russia are convening to seek an end to more than two years of civil war.
A major assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on a rebel held town over the past week is shaping into a pivotal battle. It has drawn in fighters from Assad’s Lebanese allies Hezbollah, justifying fears that a war that has killed 80,000 people would cross borders at the heart of the Middle East.
Washington and Moscow have been compelled to revive diplomacy by developments in recent months, which include new reports of atrocities, accusations chemical weapons were used and the rise of al Qaeda-linked fighters among rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet privately in Paris on Monday to discuss their efforts to bring Syria’s warring parties together, U.S. and Russian officials said.
Russia said the Syrian government had agreed in principle to attend the planned peace conference, which could take part in Geneva in the coming weeks, and had “expressed readiness” to find a political solution.
Under intense international pressure to resolve internal divisions so it can play a meaningful role in the talks, Syria’s Western-backed opposition National Coalition met in Istanbul to elect new leaders and broaden its membership.
Senior opposition figures said the coalition was likely to attend the conference, but doubted it would produce any immediate deal for Assad to leave power – their central demand.
“We are faced with a situation where everyone thinks there will be a marriage when the bride is refusing. The regime has to show a minimum of will that it is ready to stop the bloodshed,” said Haitham al-Maleh, an elder statesman of the coalition. …
COALITION STRUGGLES TO AGREE
Much to the frustration of its backers, the coalition has struggled to agree on a leader since the resignation in March of respected cleric Moaz Alkhatib, who had floated two initiatives for Assad to leave power peacefully.
Alkhatib’s latest proposal – a 16-point plan which foresees Assad handing power to his deputy or prime minister then going abroad with 500 members of his entourage – won little support in Istanbul, highlighting the obstacles to wider negotiations.
Israel’s air force chief warned Wednesday that tensions with Syria could escalate into a “surprise war” and that Israel needs to be ready. The remarks by Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel Wednesday echoed statements by Israel’s military chief of staff a day earlier.“A surprise war could take shape today in many configurations,” Eshel said at a strategy conference in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “Isolated incidents can escalate very quickly and require us to be prepared in a matter of hours to operate throughout the entire spectrum … to utilize all the capabilities of the air force,” he said.He said Russian S-300 air defense systems are “on their way” to Syria, though Israel asked Russia not to supply the advanced air defense system to Syria.
Syria said Tuesday it destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights overnight, while the Israeli military said gunfire from Syria had hit an Israeli patrol, damaging a vehicle and prompting its troops to fire back. The two sides appeared to be referring to the same incident.
The Tuesday exchange of fire between Israeli and Syrian troops along the 1973 ceasefire line centered on the shooting of an Israeli military jeep. Syria has provided a letter to the UN Security Council detailing their side of the story.
According to those familiar with its contents, Syria says the jeep they attacked crossed the ceasefire line a 1:10 AM on Tuesday morning and headed in the direction of B’ir Ajam, a village in Syria that is currently held by the rebels.
Syrian officials said that the attempt to reach the village was part of ongoing Israeli support for the rebels along their frontier, and that the attack on the jeep was “self-defense.” They urged the UN Security Council to stop Israel from future cross-border operations, and complained about Israel firing missiles into southern Syria after the jeep was “destroyed.”
Israel told a completely different story on Tuesday, claiming the jeep was on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line, that it suffered only minor damage, and that they retaliated with missiles that scored “direct hits” on the Syrian military.
Syria asserts right to enter Golan, occupied by Israel – Boston Globe
Decadence and death inside Damascus city walls – Telegraph
Damascus is a schizophrenic place, writes Ruth Sherlock. It is a city hunkered down in war, blighted by shellfire, blitzed by warplanes – and a thriving capital where business continues and the parties go on.
The party at the Damas Rose hotel in Damascus was in full swing. The ladies had coiffed their hair, applied blusher to their cheeks, and wore corsets and tight, silky, dresses with stiletto heels. At the edges of the grand parlour, groups of friends sat in booths upholstered with red velvet. Lovers wandered out to the poolside and rested on loungers below the starlit sky.
A few streets away Red Crescent volunteers washed the blood from a stretcher and hosed down an ambulance. A sniper’s bullet had smashed the taillight. They had just returned to base after delivering the lifeless body of a young man, shrapnel in his brain, back to his parents.
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said the top U.S. priority in Syria should be to work with Russia to arrange a cease-fire rather than to arm Syrian rebels or establish a no-fly zone in the country, as some in Washington are advocating.
Americans think “instinctively” they ought help put an end to the civil war, Mr. Scowcroft said in a video interview on WSJ.com. But, he added, “I don’t see how we can help. If we actively participate, as many say, in Syria, then we’re going to own Syria. And we don’t know how to solve the Syrian problem.”
Asked whether he is advocating arming rebels or setting up a no-fly zone, Mr. Scowcroft replied, “No, I’m not. This is a very difficult situation. If (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) left tomorrow, it would not be all peace and quiet.”
Instead, he endorsed an effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Moscow, an ally of and arms supplier to the Syrian government, to work out an end to the violence.
Turkey is constructing 2.5-km-long (1.5 mile) twin walls at a border crossing with Syria to increase security at the frontier following three deadly bombings this year.
Jordanian authorities turn away Syrian refugees – McClatchy
The flow of refugees crossing from Syria into Jordan has all but stopped in the last six days amid heavy fighting in the area and claims by Syrians that Jordanian border guards are preventing them from entering.
The Jordanian foreign minister has denied that his government had closed the border, but Syrians said Jordanian soldiers had turned them back.
A decision by the Jordanian government to block the flow of people across the border not only would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in Syria – thousands had been fleeing into Jordan every day, seeking refuge from the civil war there – but also would complicate efforts to supply the rebel groups that are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“When we asked the border guards why they won’t let us in, they gave no reason,” said Abu Mohammed, a Syrian rebel who used a nom de guerre that means “Father of Mohammed” in Arabic. He makes regular trips to Jordan in order to ferry weapons and other supplies into Syria and take refugees and the wounded out.
As has happened on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, the Jordanian government has been allowing fighters, supplies and refugees to pass in and out of Syria through unofficial crossings into rebel-held areas. These unofficial crossing points are crucial to the rebellion.
Saudis overtaking Qatar in sponsoring Syrian rebels – The National
Last week, a 12-member delegation from the Syrian opposition visited Saudi Arabia, for an unprecedented two-day official meeting.
Saudi authorities had consistently declined to meet the opposition, despite repeated requests. This was partly because the kingdom has opposed Muslim Brotherhood dominance in the Syrian National Council and then the National Coalition, owing to the Brotherhood’s alliance with Qatar and Turkey and opposition to inclusivity.
But last week, surprisingly, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, met Syrian Brotherhood deputy leader Mahmoud Farouq Tayfour, in one-to-one talks.
The Brotherhood had previously been confident in its alliance with Qatar and Turkey, and saw no need to offer concessions to engage other countries, including Saudi Arabia. So this meeting, which came after an “eager appeal” from the Brotherhood, suggests a shift in regional dynamics.
Two separate sources close to the opposition say Mr Tayfour assured the Saudi minister that “Syria’s Brotherhood will definitely not be like Egypt’s Brotherhood”.
He also “harshly” criticised Qatar’s role, even though Qatar had helped revive the Brotherhood in Syria after the Baathists massacred it out of existence in 1982.
Twenty thousand residents of Wadi al-Jouz, a destitute neighborhood of the hard-hit city of Hama, have lost their homes. This was not the result of bombings or gun battles, but an unlikely culprit in a time of war: urban planning.
Activists said the Syrian army spearheaded the demolition of Wadi al-Jouz’s slums, shelling homes indiscriminately, before sending in bulldozers to raze structures as people fled. More than one-quarter of all Syrians have been displaced by violence over the past two years.
Opposition activists view the demolition as a form of collective punishment, aimed to crush the revolting neighborhoods in Hama, a city that defied the Baath Party for 50 years.