PARIS — Up until 2014, Abdurrahman Mustafa was a relatively obscure figure with little political experience. Today, he is a political heavyweight in opposition institutions, heading the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and commanding major influence with Turkey’s support.
Earlier this month, just before the September 12 presidential elections within the Syrian political opposition’s highest body—the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNC), which the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) falls under—controversy swirled around Mustafa.
Rival politicians stated that Mustafa had used “inappropriate” language with other members of the SNC and forced through the selection of Hadi al-Bahra as the body’s new president to succeed Salem al-Meslet.
Who is Abdurrahman Mustafa? What power does he hold, and how did he rise within Syrian opposition institutions under the watchful eye of Syria’s neighbor, Turkey?
To tell this story, Syria Direct spoke to politicians who have been in direct contact with Mustafa for years within opposition political bodies. All spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the topic. The information they provided was triangulated and cross-checked with open sources and publicly available information.
Syria Direct also attempted to contact Abdurrahman Mustafa via his personal account on Facebook, and reached out to two of his political allies, but received no response as of the time of publication.
Path to public affairs
Abdurrahman Mustafa was born in 1964 to a simple Turkmen family in the northern Aleppo countryside city of Jarablus. According to his official profile on the Syrian National Coalition’s website, he holds a degree in economics from Aleppo University.
Two sources who worked with him for years claimed that, while he entered the Technical Institute of Financial and Banking Sciences at Aleppo University to study accounting, he did not complete his studies. Syria Direct could not independently verify this claim.
In the late 1980s, Mustafa moved to Libya where he worked as a “service employee” and as a translator for a Turkish company, a former Syrian Turkmen Council official said. Mustafa later went on to work in Bulgaria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In 2012, Mustafa’s political career began when he “took an active role in the organization of the participation of the Turkmen component in the Syrian revolution,” according to his profile on the SNC’s website. He was a founding member of Syria’s Turkmen Forum the same year, which the SNC described as “the first institutional success the Turkmen component achieved in Syria in 2012.”
Syria’s Turkmen descend from ethnic Turks whose presence in Syria dates back to the 10th century, when Ottoman rulers encouraged them to settle in the region. Today, most live in villages along the Turkish border with Latakia and Aleppo provinces, where they still speak Turkish.
Responding to the official narrative of Mustafa’s rise, the former Turkmen Council Official said “Mustafa was invited to two meetings in 2013, as were around 1,000 Syrian Turkmen figures in Istanbul and Ankara, with the aim of forming the Syrian Turkmen Council.” These meetings were “sponsored by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his country’s foreign ministry,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity citing the “sensitive nature of the topic.”
Mustafa attempted to run for membership of the newly formed body with the support of a far-right Turkish political party, but was not among the 40 members first elected to the Turkmen Council. In response, an official in the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) “contacted the presidency of the Turkmen Council in order to appoint Mustafa to it,” the former official said. When the request was declined, “the party asked him to be appointed as an ‘office boy,’ and he was appointed to this position for several months.”
In the next Turkmen Council elections, held in September 2013, Mustafa won a seat as a member of the council and was elected vice president to Fayez Amro, the head of the council who succeeded Samir Hafez. In May 2014, Mustafa was elected as head of the Turkmen Council.
Entering the Syrian National Coalition
In 2014, the Syrian Turkmen Council sought to join the Syrian National Council, but was rejected because “the SNC included three Turkmen members, and we believed that number was sufficient for the Turkmen component,” a former founding member of the SNC told Syria Direct.
The SNC was formed in 2012, with a body of 63 members. After calls were made to expand it in 2014, it grew to 113 members. Once the SNC expanded, the Turkmen Council was able to join the coalition with seven members—including Abdurrahman Mustafa—bringing the number of Turkmen to nine. Several other entities also joined the SNC at the time, including the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
There are more Turkmen in the SNC than the official members of the Turkmen Council, however, as some joined the body independently or as representatives of other entities, such as local councils, the former SNC official said. “Turkmen are estimated at about 16 percent of the membership,” he added.
In May 2017, Mustafa was elected vice president of the SNC under then-President Riad Seif, benefiting from conflict between Seif and Khaled Khoja in the elections at the time. The 2017 elections were the last contest that saw two candidates vying for presidency of the SNC. “He passed through the crowd, nobody had their eyes on him,” the former SNC official said of Mustafa.
“Abdurrahman Mustafa seemed like an ordinary person, but his connections with the Turks were clear,” the official added.
Seif resigned from the SNC around 10 months later due to “political and health pressures, some of which were related to his deputy, Abdurrahman Mustafa,” one current member of the SNC told Syria Direct. “Seif and Mustafa clashed, and Mustafa clashed with other members [of the SNC].”
Mustafa became president of the SNC on February 28, 2018 to finish out Seif’s term until the next election. In May 2019, he won an uncontested election for president.
After Riad Seif left office, the SNC fell into major internal issues, divided over the decision to participate in the Sochi talks sponsored by Turkey, Russia and Iran. The opposition body also faced mounting pressure from Ankara, both the current and former SNC officials told Syria Direct.
Ankara asked the SNC to “appoint a president who agrees to go to Sochi,” the former official said. “The request was made in a diplomatic way, under the pretext that there are shared interests that unite us, and that Mustafa could be a solution and lend greater support to the opposition,” he added. Turkey “convinced us that the solution was in the person of Abdurrahman Mustafa.”
Moving to the Syrian Interim Government
After about a year and a half as president of the Syrian National Coalition, Mustafa became president of its affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in September 2019. Initially, “his name was not on the table to take over the government and succeed Jawad Abu Hatab, who Turkey had repeatedly asked the SNC to dismiss,” the current SNC member said.
Up until a few short hours before Mustafa was announced as the SIG’s new president, the leading candidate was Anas al-Abdah, with Mustafa to remain president of the SNC. But following two meetings between al-Abdah and Turkish officials, Ankara decided to switch the two opposition politicians’ posts, according to identical information provided by both the former and current SNC sources. Mustafa would become SIG president, while al-Abdah would lead the SNC.
“It appears that Abdurrahman Mustafa was more suitable for the Turks as SIG president since he is more yielding and obedient to them, giving them the greatest influence on the ground,” the former official said. Opposition institutions within Syria belong administratively to the SIG, headed by Mustafa.
Mustafa’s SIG presidency ushered in “a stage of expanding his influence, deepening his relationship with the Turkish governors, army, intelligence and security services,” the former SNC official said. “He was tasked with reconstituting the local councils, removing and replacing the bloc of local council and provincial council representatives in the SNC.”
“Mustafa’s influence became greater when he gained unlimited Turkish support from the Turkish security services, foreign ministry and the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party [MHP],” the former SNC official added.
His leadership also reshaped the relationship between the SNC and the SIG. Prior to Mustafa’s presidency, “the SIG would meet with the SNC periodically and provide it with reports on its work, and the SNC could question the SIG and its presidency,” the current SNC member said. But the new president “protested the SIG’s subordination to the SNC, and rejected the existence of any governing relationship between them. He also rejected what was known as the Government Follow-Up Committee,” he said.
The relationship between the two bodies soured, with “bad and troubled relations, so the Turks intervened on several occasions to resolve disputes,” the current SNC member said. “The SIG and SNC reached an agreement to reformulate the governing relationship between them. The committee did that, but Mustafa and the SNC rejected the paper it prepared.”
The current SNC member alleged that Mustafa “complained about us to the Turkish side, and in turn they contacted us and said to leave the government [SIG] alone, and not interfere with it.”
According to internal SNC statutes, Mustafa was required to give up his membership in the SNC once he assumed the SIG presidency, as his predecessor Jawad Abu Hatab had done. But “Mustafa refused to relinquish his membership, and the SNC was forced to change the rule, in a situation that exactly resembles what the regime did with the Syrian constitution to hand Bashar al-Assad power,” the former SNC member said.
In April 2022, the SNC amended its internal statutes under the heading of “internal reform.” Article 7 of the new system stipulates that “any of those who have been named as representatives in the SNC may hold any position with the rank of minister and up, or president of the SIG, provided that membership in the SNC is changed to that of a non-voting member until the end of the assignment.”
Why hold on to Mustafa?
SNC members have tried twice to withdraw confidence from Abdurrahman Mustafa and remove him from the SIG presidency. Both attempts failed, because “the Turks immediately intervened and warned us that he could not be touched or held accountable whatsoever, saying he is a red line,” the former SNC official told Syria Direct.
Prior to that, the former head of the Syrian Turkmen Council, Wajih Juma, tried to change the council’s SNC representatives in the first quarter of 2018, including Mustafa. But a powerful quartet of SNC politicians—Badr Jamous, Anas al-Abdah, Abdulahad Astepho and Hadi al-Bahra—“rejected the idea of replacing him, even though the SNC has no right to prevent any component from replacing its representatives,” the current SNC member said.
“Several months later, Wajih sent a new letter to the SNC stipulating that his representative Abdurrahman Mustafa be replaced by another representative, but the SNC refused to carry out the contents of the letter,” he added.
The close relationship between the SNC quartet and Mustafa was evident in the latest SNC elections, when Mustafa reportedly played a role in imposing Hadi al-Bahra as the body’s new president.
Read more: Hadi al-Bahra: President of a dead institution?
The former SNC official called the relationship between Mustafa and the four powerful SNC politicians an “evil alliance—he needs them, and they need him.” However, “his authority may be higher than theirs, because of the support he has, and they know they cannot hold him accountable or limit his powers,” he added.
Mustafa controls the highest percentage of votes within the SNC, the outcome of what the same former official termed a “systematic plan that started with the Turkmen Council and brought him to where he is today. He now owns the votes of the Turkmen Council, the factions, the local councils and the provincial councils within the SNC,” making up some 30 percent of all SNC votes.
All the sources Syria Direct spoke to for this report viewed empowering Mustafa as part of a strategy on Ankara’s part to add a card to its hand in the event it reaches an agreement with the Syrian regime.
“Ankara could reach an agreement with the regime at any time. They want a Syrian opposition that can be compliant and sit at the table to pass along the agreement,” the former SNC official said. “With Mustafa’s presence, the SNC has become an important card in Turkey’s hand, after it had been a card for Syrians to negotiate with to gain their freedom.”
The former Turkmen Council official agreed. “Abdurrahman Mustafa’s character is appropriate if normalization is achieved with the Syrian regime,” he said, adding that the SIG president has chances to be “present in the next stage if there is an agreement on a political solution.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.