The Syrian National Coalition's Saudi Makeover

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A Syrian youth dives into a swimming pool as people enjoy a day out in the northern city of Aleppo on 12 July 2013. (Photo: AFP - JM Lopez)

By: Nasser Charara

Published Thursday, July 18, 2013

How does Damascus view the current phase of the Syrian crisis? From the recent changes in leadership, both in the opposition Syrian National Coalition and at the helm of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, to a proposed international peace conference for Syria, and what appears to be the precursors of an economic war on Syria spearheaded by Saudi Arabia with Lebanese complicity, Al-Akhbar probes the Syrian regime’s assessment.

Over the past few days, the Baath Party and the opposition Syrian National Coalition have both elected new leaders, although the timing appears to be a coincidence. If anything, the scope of the reshuffle indicates that both parties, for their own reasons, have come to acknowledge that their respective models were no longer working, and required a fundamental adjustment in their policies and top brass.

Interestingly, this process has produced two main losers: namely, the Muslim Brotherhood-led wing in the National Coalition and the “old guard” of the Baath. These two groups have been the historical poles of the conflict in Syria over the past decade; therefore, the fact that they have been cast aside almost simultaneously has left many wondering whether this comes in advance preparation for a dialogue between the new Baath gutted of its old guard, and the National Coalition ridded of the Brotherhood.

An official Syrian source closely involved with the Syrian “crisis cell” led from the presidential palace, provides further background to these developments. He believes that the change in leadership of the Baath Party took place as part of a new comprehensive vision for its organization and role. As for the change at the top of the National Coalition, the source reckons it is the result of having to adapt to the ouster of the Brotherhood-led regime in Egypt, as well as a shift in the opposition’s “spiritual leadership” from Doha to Riyadh.

How does the regime interpret these developments?

The Syrian source reveals that for months now, the chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been seeking to instigate a coup in the National Coalition, with a view to scaling back the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence and imposing Ahmad al-Jarba as the coalition’s new leader. To achieve this, Riyadh relied on opposition veteran Michel Kilo, who was asked to incorporate dozens of his supporters and independents into the opposition outfit, in order to gain enough votes to upend the Brotherhood’s control over the Coalition.

Samira Musalema – according to the source – is an example of the kind of individual Riyadh asked Kilo to include in the National Coalition. Indeed, in addition to being affiliated to Kilo, Musalema enjoys the personal backing of Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, who nominated her to be the Coalition’s media secretary, an appointment that the source said is expected to be announced soon.

Ahmad al-Jarba: Personal History

The source maintains that Ahmad al-Jarba’s trek to the highest post in the Coalition was planned from A to Z in the corridors of Saudi intelligence. The man, the source said, has a big rap sheet kept by Qatari, Saudi, and Syrian security services, for acts involving all three countries, and in the past, the three intelligence agencies had even coordinated operations in his pursuit.

The Syrian source provided particulars involving Jarba that were mentioned in official Syrian security records, as a fugitive wanted for criminal offenses, including fraud, corruption, and even assassination plots that were not carried out. According to the source, records show that Riyadh handed over “the suspect Ahmad al-Jarba” to Damascus in 2008, on charges of drug trafficking, in accordance with an extradition agreement between Saudi and Syrian security services (which was suspended at the beginning of the Syrian crisis). Jarba was tried and sentenced to a prison term at the time.

The records also reveal another entry involving Jarba, which the Qatari security services undoubtedly also have in their records, as the source said: After the coup staged by the outgoing Emir of Qatar Hamad against his father Khalifa al-Thani, the latter’s foreign minister fled to Syria, where he became a vocal supporter for restoring the previous emir. At the time, according to the records, Emir Hamad’s people asked Ahmad al-Jarba to assassinate the exiled Qatari foreign minister in Syria. Al-Jarba even received payment after accepting to carry out the mission, the source claimed.

However, Jarba chose instead to expose the plot to the deposed Emir Khalifa, for which he also received a financial reward. The issue proved to have huge political consequences, prompting the Syrian state security agency to investigate and ultimately detain Jarba for a total of five months on counts of fraud.

According to another entry in the Syrian security records, Jarba approached the Libyan ambassador in Damascus shortly after Muammar Gaddafi declared himself Africa’s “king of kings,” and persuaded the ambassador to use Jarba’s help in sending Syrian tribal delegations to Libya to pledge allegiance to Gaddafi. Jarba had introduced himself to the Libyan leadership as the chief of the Shammar tribe of the Jazirah region in Syria (Upper Mesopotamia).

In 2004, he was looking for ways to gain access to the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as one of the elders of the Shammar clan, which has branches from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, all the way to Saudi Arabia. Before Jarba dropped off the grid in Syria, he was being pursued by the Syrian authorities for running brothels in Damascus and Hasakah.

The Secret Decisions of the Doha Meeting

Recently, Saudi intelligence, under Bandar’s direct supervision, began touting Jarba as the chief of the Syrian branch of the Shammar tribe, presenting him inside the Coalition as their pointman for arms purchases. It is likely that Bandar bargained with several blocks in the Coalition over instating Jarba as the president of the opposition group in return for delivering game-changing weapons.

The information available to the Syrian security services indicates that Jarba’s appointment came following pressure from Saudi Arabia during the most recent meeting held by the countries backing the Syrian opposition in Doha. Secret agreements were reached, including one between Paris and Riyadh over the purchase and delivery of advanced weapons for the benefit of the opposition.

These weapons include French MILAN anti-tank missiles and French-made MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems. Saudi has already purchased a shipment of MILAN missiles, which were delivered with French help to the opposition in Syria, while the MANPADS deal is pending a U.S. green light before being dispatched from Saudi warehouses to Free Syria Army (FSA) commander Salim Idriss.

These French-made missiles were reportedly obtained from the black market, rather than being directly purchased from France, with the help of Austrian arm dealers.

During the meeting in Doha, Saudi intelligence endeavored to polish Jarba’s image among the countries backing the Syrian opposition, presenting him as the chief of the Shammar tribe, and claiming that the groups under his command control the Yaarabia border crossing with Iraq. However, the tribe in Syria is actually led by two elders, Shammar Hamidi Dahham al-Hadi, who has close ties with the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and Uday al-Meez al-Madloul.

Concerning the claim that Jarba controls groups in Hasakah and Qamishli, it is common knowledge in Upper Mesopotamia that the man has been banished by not only his tribe, but even his close family. His father had distanced himself from his son ever since he was exposed for running brothels, even though Jarba tried at the time to claim that he was only running a company to help young men and women marry. Meanwhile, his brother Zaid is a regime supporter, while his older brother Nawwaf has shunned politics altogether.


The Ever-Shifting Sponsorship of the Coalition

Since its inception, the National Coalition has been moving from the embraces of one regional sponsor to another, according to the Syrian source. Whenever it settles for a new sponsor, the source said, the Coalition elects a new leader named by the current sponsor.

Indeed, the Kurd Abdul-Basset Sieda was elected president [of the Coalition’s forerunner, the Syrian National Council (SNC)], following a NATO meeting last year, during which Turkey called for the Kurdish card to be taken out of the hands of Tehran and Damascus. To be sure, the Syrian and Iranian regimes had succeeded in manipulating this card to punish Ankara.

Following the meeting, U.S. ambassador in Syria Robert Ford met with a delegation of Syrian Kurds and asked them join the Syrian revolution, promising them that the Syrian opposition’s program would grant them self-rule and guarantee their cultural rights.

After peace talks between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan stalled, Sieda was replaced with George Sabra, a Christian, as interim president. Sabra’s appointment was meant to show that the Syrian opposition was not a radical Islamic outfit that persecuted minorities.

As the U.S. approach shifted to favoring dialogue between the regime and the opposition, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib was appointed as president of [the SNC’s successor the Syrian National Coalition], and he shortly declared that he was in favor of a negotiated solution. However, Khatib was soon toppled by the Qataris and the French, who wanted to realize some kind of military achievement for the opposition in conjunction with negotiations.

This process continues with the appointment of Bandar’s man, Ahmad al-Jarba, as president of the Syrian National Coalition.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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