July 11, 2013
By Nuha Shabaan and Jacob Wirtschafter
AMMAN: With his strong ties to Saudi financial and diplomatic resources, incoming Syrian Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba has assumed the reigns of power promising immediate efforts to reverse the course of the war and demonstrate it can rule inside Syria.
Activists say that while the Syrian Coalition teeters on the brink of irrelevance due to internal incoherence as well as its base in Istanbul rather than in Syria’s rebel-held areas, al-Jarba nevertheless enjoys Saudi backing, which could translate into rapid support on the ground.
“Ahmad al-Jarba was the Saudi candidate for this job and he has built a support base within the Coalition in recent months,” said an independent observer of the Coalition’s elections and meetings. “He’s basically promised that he can get the Kingdom to send real weapons to the rebels quickly.”
Incoming Syrian Coalition president Ahmad al-Jarba (left) with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (right) following a meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Coalition.
The balloting, which analysts say was a setback for those closest to the Muslim Brotherhood, took place over the weekend in Istanbul. Jarba won with 55 votes to political rival Mustafa Sabbagh’s 52.
Sabbagh’s candidacy was backed by Qatar, which has challenged Saudi Arabia for the role of the Syrian opposition’s chief patron.
A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman dismissed the importance of the Coalition’s election over the weekend.
“It does not matter to me what happens in the Coalition,” said Zuhair Salem, a London-based spokesman for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood officially holds six seats in the 114-member body although nearly two dozen other members are seen as allied with the Brotherhood.
“Most of the people going to the meeting are desperate and dead in the water,” Salem said, adding, “they are disconnected from reality.”
Born in 1969 and holding a law degree from Beirut University, al-Jarba got involved in civil society organizations in Qamishli and Al-Hasakah province, where he cooperated with Kurdish opposition elements until he ran afoul of the regime in the late 1990’s.
Al-Jarba was first arrested by Syrian intelligence in Damascus and imprisoned from 1996-1998 on anti-regime political charges.
A cluster of pro-regime online newspapers including Souria Press, Tanit Press, and the Syrian Telegraph responded to the Coalition’s choice by publishing allegations that al-Jarba was rearrested in March 2011 for supplying narcotics to employees of the Saudi embassy in Damascus.
In nearly identical stories, these publications claimed al-Jarba was only released from prison on the drug-related convictions in August 2011 due to pressure from the Saudis.
Facing skepticism from other opposition factions within his own coalition in addition to fragmented leadership and anxious activists on the ground demanding results, Syrians in the opposition say al-Jarba must demonstrate a clear sense of direction and show results on an accelerated timetable.
“Ahead of al-Jarba are a lot of challenges; the first one is winning the trust of the Syrian street by uniting,” says Jawan Yousef, a Syrian-Kurdish activist and former member of the Syrian National Coalition now based in Switzerland. Al-Jarba “must prove that he is indeed able to form a transitional government to lead the liberated areas from inside, and not through Skype.”
Al-Jarba has told activists in Homs that he is committed to providing $1 million in cash assistance, according to the opposition news website Aleppo Today. Earlier this week, the new Coalition leader assured frontline fighters in Idlib province that his top priority is arming the rebels to stymie the trend of regime military advances.
Al-Jarba has also stated that the Coalition’s participation at the as-yet unscheduled Geneva II conference be delayed until the FSA gains, holds and provides a semblance of governance in more territory.
“We are not going to Geneva unless we have a strong military position,” Jarba told the Paris-based opposition Rozana Radio station on Monday, underlining a theme which activists say resonates across the political spectrum.
Activists say al-Jarba’s tribal connections could also boost his efforts to pull in support for the Syrian Coalition.
“As a member of the Shammar tribe in Hasaka province, al-Jarba benefits from clan connections that extend into both Saudi Arabia and Iraq,” says Mohamed Zakwan Baaj, Secretary General of the Syrian Free Men, a secular opposition group inside Syria.
“This could be a possible source of power for resolving issues in Syria,” added Zakwan Baaj, a 50-year-old engineer in Homs who is also a member of the National Democratic Alliance.
The Coalition’s official biography of its new president states “Jarba has been supporting the Syrian revolution, providing medical and military aid, since the beginning.”
Activists interviewed for this article say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude before drawing conclusions.
“If Jarba is able to attract the real activists, who are the rebels and the intellectuals inside Syria, and to represent them in the Coalition by creating an agenda and a national army, he will ensure his success,” said Aleppo attorney Badran.
Additional reporting by Abdulrahman al-Masri.