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Hadi al-Bahra: President of a dead institution?

The Syrian political opposition’s highest body elected Hadi al-Bahra as its new president this month, in a process overshadowed by leaks, controversy and allegations he was hand-picked by an influential group of politicians linked to Ankara.

15 September 2023

PARIS — Last week, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces—the political opposition’s highest body—elected Hadi al-Bahra as its new president. Like his predecessor Salem al-Meslet, al-Bahra was chosen in what some Syrians described as “show elections,” in which the outcome was widely known before the body’s members voted. 

The latest Syrian National Coalition (SNC) elections sparked widespread controversy, and prompted some of the body’s members to resign. Hours before the results were officially announced on September 12, SNC General Assembly member Hafez Karkout announced he was withdrawing from it in protest of escalating disputes between members and the election of a new Presidential Body in an “illegal” manner, as he put it. 

The scandal is the latest in a long list of irregular practices within the SNC and its affiliated institutions. One example was the 2020 seat-swapping between Naser al-Hariri, who was elected SNC president in July of that year while heading the Negotiations Committee, and Anas al-Abdah, the outgoing president who took over as head of the Negotiations Committee when his term ended.  

The SNC was established in November 2012 following disputes and “broad” disagreements in the ranks of the Syrian National Council—the first political body representing the opposition at home and abroad, established in 2011. The following year, Qatar sponsored the formation of the new political coalition in the presence of Arab and Western diplomats. The SNC brought together the spectrum of Syrian opposition bodies, and gained importance as a political umbrella and the opposition’s highest political authority. A number of institutions and bodies fall under it, including the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Syrian Negotiations Committee and the Constitutional Committee. 

What happened? 

On the surface, al-Bahra was elected for a second term at the helm of the SNC, having previously served as president from 2014-2015. But in reality, his leadership was imposed under threats issued by members of the SNC close to the Turkish government, former President Naser al-Hariri said in a statement posted on social media. He said Syrian Interim Government President Abdurrahman Mustafa insisted elections be held on September 12 and that al-Bahra win, using what al-Hariri described as  “inappropriate” language.

In mid-August, a leaked letter written by SNC Vice President Ruba Habboush was published by Syrian media. In it, Habboush criticized the SNC’s electoral mechanism, which she described as “a clear violation of the principles of democracy, and contrary to the right to vote freely.” SNC elections are held through delegation, whereby a member can be elected on behalf of other members delegated to that individual. Habboush’s letter was written after the elections, scheduled for this past July, were postponed to September 12. 

One member of the SNC, who spoke to Syria Direct from his residence in Istanbul on condition of anonymity, said a group of members known as the G4 “imposed Hadi al-Bahra’s appointment under the justification that it was a Turkish request that could not be changed. In fact, the group wants to dominate all decisions and sovereign positions within the SNC.” 

Syria Direct attempted to reach Hadi al-Bahra for comment prior to publication of this report, but received no response. 

There is no connection between the name of the G4 group and what are known as the G4 nations—Brazil, Germany, India and Japan—that aspire to become permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The SNC’s G4 includes four opposition politicians: Badr Jamous, Anas al-Abdah, Abdulahad Astepho and Hadi al-Bahra. 

Although the SNC is a higher authority than the SIG headed by Abdurrahman Mustafa, in practice the SIG wields power over it. The SIG is backed by Ankara, and dominates the Syrian Turkmen Council, local councils, factions and the Syrian Council of Tribes and Clans. It also holds the most votes within the SNC. 

“What happened recently cannot be considered in isolation from the structure of the [SNC] institution and what happened in previous years,” Ayman Abdel Nour, the director of the Washington-based organization Syrian Christians for Peace, told Syria Direct. He compared al-Bahra’s election to that of his predecessor al-Meslet, as “Syrians knew he would win months before the election.” 

“The Coalition has become a Turkish platform acknowledged by all other countries,” Abdel Nour suggested, referring to Ankara’s influence over the SNC’s decisions and members. 

Hafez Karkout, the writer and opposition member of the SIG who withdrew from the SNC in protest of the latest elections, called al-Bahra’s selection “direct appointment under the cover of pro forma elections,” and could not be described as true elections. 

Structural problems

The SNC, like other Syrian opposition political institutions, suffers from major “structural” problems related to its “work, self-definition and adherence to the internal system and principles for which the opposition rose up against an authoritarian regime,” Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies, told Syria Direct. “It is not acceptable to justify what happened through external pressures and circumstances, without looking at the structural problems,” he added. 

“The SNC manages itself and the rest of the institutions affiliated with it, including the SIG, to which the local councils and [Syrian] National Army belong. So it, more than others, has to achieve the model that all Syrians want,” Alwan said. 

While structural problems in opposition institutions are not new, they have resurfaced in a moment of sensitive and changed political circumstances. These include “an international and Arab movement to pressure the Bashar al-Assad regime to comply with a number of demands made by Arab countries” in exchange for normalization, as well as “domestic movements in Suwayda and Daraa, and clashes in the northeast,” Abdel Nour said. The latest electoral controversy was also accompanied by “leaks, defections and harsh messages within the SNC, reaching the level of the vice president and former president [al-Hariri,” he added. 

“What happened negatively affects the SNC’s relationship with Arab and Western countries,” the Istanbul-based SNC member told Syria Direct. “It reinforces the idea of the opposition’s lack of governance and transparency, which means it has lost an important element that sets it apart from the regime,” he added. “Al-Bahra taking over sends a message to Arabs and the West that the SNC is under total Turkish guardianship, which harms all of our institutions.” 

But Karkout downplayed the impact of the recent elections on the Syrian political file more broadly. What is happening in relation to Syria is “outside Syrians’ will in the first place, given the major international interference in it,” he said. 

Researcher Alwan agreed, noting that “the SNC tops the list of local actors who no longer have a major role in influencing Syria’s political situation.” Since 2014, the Syrian file has gone “from the stage of searching for a solution—at a time when the opposition and local actors had a role in shaping and influencing the political scene—to that of political reconciliation, finding a new formula for a solution that regional and international players agree upon and impose on local actors,” he added. 

“Choosing al-Bahra stems from internal political balances [of power] within the SNC, and has nothing to do with foreign calculations, because opposition symbols and figures don’t affect much in those balances,” Alwan said. “Rather, countries base their interests according to their own approach and interests, not according to people and political entities.” 

The SNC’s structural problems caused it to lose many of its foreign political relationships over the past several years. The United States administration “considers the SNC a Turkish platform in an official and clear way, and the SNC was explicitly informed of that when Anas al-Abdah was president,” Abdel Nour said. 

He pointed to the SNC issuing a statement “against clear American requests, when Turkey intervened with its forces to implement [its 2019] Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria without consulting anyone.” In response, the US “cut off all financial and diplomatic aid and political cover from the SNC. Its office in Washington was closed, and [the US] started to deal with it as a Turkish platform, not as a representative, coordinator or sole guardian of the opposition and its forces.” 

Before the latest crisis, the US administration and Europeans viewed the opposition’s performance “negatively, especially the coalition,” researcher Alwan said. He thought it unlikely that SNC stone-throwing in the media or recent resignations would impact this reality. 

“The SNC, with its performance based on competition and internal conflicts, has lost much of its stock within the Syrian opposition and among local actors. There is not much to gain or lose from what happened recently,” Alwan added. 

Insisting on al-Bahra

As for why some SNC members insisted that al-Bahra be selected as president, Abdel Nour explained that the G4 group “has exhausted all of its members,” leaving only al-Bahra to hold power on their behalf. “Badr al-Jamous heads the Negotiations Committee, so he cannot take over the SNC now. Anas al-Abdah took over the SNC twice, and cannot run for a third term under its internal rules, and it is difficult for Abdulahad Astepho to be nominated. Only Hadi al-Bahra is left, with one final presidential term remaining.” 

With al-Bahra as president, the powerful group ensures “all positions in the SNC, and the institutions and commissions affiliated with it, are under its control. Today, the group manages all the opposition’s decisions, bodies and commissions,” Abdel Nour added. 

Despite the criticisms surrounding al-Bahra’s election, “some say that he has mastered the diplomatic game, benefiting from his previous experiences,” Abdel Nour said. “He could be better than others, especially in this crucial period that could lead to many agreements. It might be difficult for an inexperienced person to deal with it better.” 

Karkout, the politician who withdrew from the SNC this month, denounced the insistence on al-Bahra. “His group has extensive relations with ambassadors, delegates and political figures. Through these relationships, these faces have maintained their presence at the front. Through these relationships, they consolidate their personal interests, and it is from this entrypoint that the figures of al-Bahra and others were consecrated,” he said. 

Al-Bahra holds a number of key positions within opposition institutions, in addition to being president of the SDF. He heads the Constitutional Committee delegation and is a member of the SNC Political Committee and the Syrian Negotiations Committee, and is the SNC delegate to the Syrian Recovery Trust Fund.

So far, neither the SNC nor al-Bahra has announced his resignation from any of his other positions. This means an overlap in his powers, especially regarding the Constitutional Committee and its authority for the SNC. 

“Al-Bahra did not announce he would leave any of his positions,” Karkout said. In his view, some opposition figures “consider what they obtain to be personal spoils, under the guise of a charge and public service.” 

The SNC will continue to exist as a political body, “but does not enjoy domestic or international respect,” Abdel Nour said. Rather, he expected “it will be dealt with because there is a legal text indicating that it is the representative of the Syrian people.” 

But as Karkout sees it, “after these unfortunate polemics and insults, if the SNC remains as it is, it is headed nowhere—to burial, not reform.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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