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Understanding Why the Regime and Opposition Changed Leadership

On Saturday, Saudi-backed Ahmed Jarba was named leader of the Syrian opposition, defeating candidates allied with Qatar.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Jarba, who represents the small faction of secularist leader Michel Kilo, has in recent months been a strong advocate of supplying rebel fighters with outside weapons. Here, experts explain why his election represents a shift for the opposition. 

Sami Moubayed, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut:  

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Saudi Arabia, for now, has gotten the upper hand in the Syrian opposition. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal summoned a delegation from the Syrian National Alliance last June, telling them bluntly that his country, rather than Qatar, was now in-charge of the Syria File. Qatar’s role, he seemed to be saying, had only brought the wrong people to power in Egypt and was achieving zero progress on Syria.

First on his agenda was “dethroning” the Qatar-backed interim Prime Minister of the Syrian Government-in-Exile, Ghassan Hitto. The Saudis never liked him—he was too Westernized for their taste, politically inexperienced, Kurdish rather than Arab, and happened to be a clear favorite of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Now with him all but politically finished, the Saudis pushed hard to bring their man, Ahmed Jarba, to head the Syrian National Alliance.

Jarba’s tenure will be challenging, however, as the opposition watches the scene in Egypt. Chances are that the Great Powers will be too busy with Egypt in the months ahead, to pay serious attention to Syria. Regional players already have too much on their plate to take on the task, leaving the Syria File, for now, in the hands of the regime and opposition. Erdogan, furious with the coup that toppled Mohammad Morsi, is facing an angry secular street after the latest standoff in Istanbul.

The new ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, has been remarkably silent over Syria since assuming power in late June. Morsi is in jail. The exodus, and arrest, of Qatar’s proxies in Cairo was a stunning blow to Doha.  This means difficult times for the Syrian Brotherhood, which to date, has been backbone of the Alliance.

Now with the Syrian Brotherhood left toothless, the Alliance will be dwarfed, rather gruesomely. Jarba will face the impossible task of restructuring, re-branding, and uniting the opposition. He doesn’t have the political experience to do so, nor the money, or power base on the Syrian Street. The chances of his success therefore, depend entirely on Saudi Arabia.

They are fully in control now, of the opposition, rid of Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt.

Taufiq Rahim, Dubai-based Middle East affairs analyst: 

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The change in leadership is as much a commentary on mutual politics as it is a failure of certain factions that were needed by the SNC so far. This is not just a shift to reflect regional politics, but a shift to reflect the failure of the factions that had been leading the Coalition so far.

Mustafa Sabah was very instrumental at the start of Coalition, and he was the primary competitor for Jarba. This vote signals dissatisfaction with Sabah’s role. In addition to that, this definitely signals “transfer” of the Syrian “file” for the region from Qatar to Saudi Arabia. And while it was something talked about in recent weeks, especially during the negotiations about expanding the membership of the SNC, this was a very formal invitation [of something different.]

Jarba’s a wild card. He was somebody who’d spent time inside Syria but he wasn’t a particularly charismatic or strong leader. We’ll see if he can bring the opposition back from irrelevance.

In the days after Jarba’s election, there was a shake-up on the other side of the conflict when President Bashar al-Assad replaced the top 16 leaders of his ruling Baath Party. Gaining confidence after his recent military victory in Qusayr, he kept his own position (he is officially the secretary-general of the party) but dropped his vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa. We asked Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and an expert on Baath party politics, to shed light on why Assad made this move.

al-Sharaa was an old guard manipulator. He’s from Deraa, from this area which rose up. And he couldn’t control his own region.

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The Baath Party has been completely dominated by this regional command for decades now. Most of the leadership hasn’t changed very much. There was a drive in 2005 by the last big party congress to try to get some change within the party, and it failed. And now, obviously, this revolution has raised the whole question of, ‘what does the Baath Party do? Who does it serve?’

[In the past], larger questions have been raised asking whether the president should just get rid of the party and Article 8 in the Syrian Constitution, which states that the Baath Party will be the ruling party in Syria.

The whole Baath Party structure failed. The party was really supposed to be the organism by which peasants and workers would remain faithful to leadership, and the leadership would satisfy the basic concerns of the peasantry and the working class. And obviously that failed, because the countryside and the poor of Syria rose up and are leading this rebellion.

There’s been a dismantling of this ‘authoritarian bargain’ at the heart of the Syrian state. It’s a 1950s bargain by which authoritarian governments offer jobs, subsidies and a minimum of economic security in exchange for political freedoms and liberties. And this system has broken down.

I think [this latest development Assad’s way of saying ‘okay, I hear you, I’m making reforms’], and I think he’s looking forward to 2014, when there are supposed to be elections. I’m not sure what he has in mind for 2014, but the international community is trying to move towards Geneva II and negotiate, and Assad has claimed [to them] since the beginning that he’s meeting those reforms. Part of this is that Sharah represents the old Baath Party.

He’s got to find a different mechanism by which to have a popular party. He’s going to stick with the Constitution and the Baath Party. His challenge is how to win the elections. And if he’s going to reconstitute Syria in any kind of way, if he believes he can reimpose central rule over rebel-held areas, he has to come up with some device, some third party organization that’s going to respond to the needs of the impoverished lower classes that rose up against him. The Baath Party had lost touch with the lower classes, with the countryside. So he’s got to figure out how to recast himself. This is the first step.

The opposition had in the beginning settled on Sharaa as the legal substitute for Bashar al-Assad. And if you’e going to follow a constitutional path, the president would have to step down and the vice president would be able to become president of an interim government. He’s a Sunni. And the Syrian National Coalition in the first year had stated that they wanted Bashar to step down and for Sharaa to form an interim government.

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