By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
A crisis in Syrian opposition ranks deepened on Monday when a Western and Arab-backed liberal bloc was offered only token representation in the Islamist-dominated Syrian National Coalition.
To the dismay of envoys of Western and Arab nations who have been monitoring four days of opposition talks in Istanbul, the 60-member coalition thwarted a deal to admit a bloc headed by opposition campaigner Michel Kilo with up to 22 new seats.
His group received an offer of only five seats after a session that stretched nearly to dawn, coalition sources said.
The move kept the coalition controlled by a faction loyal to Qatari-backed Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. That group led resistance to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad’s late father in the 1980s, when thousands of its members were tortured and executed.
Addressing the coalition, Kilo said, “We were talking about 25 names as the basis for our negotiations, then there was agreement on 22 and then the number dropped to 20, then to 18, then to 15, then to five.
“I do not think you have a desire to cooperate and hold our extended hand. … We wish you all the best.”
A source in the Kilo bloc said the group would hold a meeting in a few hours to decide whether to withdraw from the opposition conference.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh described the outcome as “democratic,” but said the coalition could discuss the expansion issue further.
The development occurred hours before the European Union is scheduled at a meeting in Brussels to discuss lifting an arms embargo that could allow weapons to reach rebel fighters in Syria who are seeking to oust Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will also meet privately in Paris on Monday to discuss the details of a peace conference that could be held in Geneva in the next few weeks.
Washington has pressured the coalition to resolve its divisions and to expand to include more liberals to counter Islamists from dominating the coalition.
The Syrian revolt began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad’s autocratic rule that were met with military repression, leading to an armed insurgency.
The war has developed into a sectarian conflict pitting members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has controlled Syria since the 1960s, against members of the Sunni majority. At least 80,000 people have been killed.
With Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants now openly fighting alongside government troops in Syria, Saudi Arabia is keen to play a greater role in backing the Sunni-led opposition, opposition sources have said.
Qatar, the other main Arab player backing the revolt against Assad, had agreed to let Saudi Arabia play the primary role in opposition politics, and Riyadh had been expected to lead Gulf efforts to back a new provisional government financially, opposition sources said.
Significant expansion of the 60-member coalition would have lessened Qatar’s influence on the opposition.
“What we have seen today is the work of Sabbagh, but I really do not see the wisdom of ticking off Saudi Arabia,” a senior coalition source said.
Sabbagh, who has played a main role in channeling money for aid and military supplies inside Syria, has been resisting a Saudi-supported plan to add members to the coalition, the sources said.
“Sabbagh has been told by Qatar that the Saudis are brothers and he should compromise. But he is a Syrian first and he will put the interest of the national opposition above everything,” an ally of Sabbagh in the coalition said.
The coalition’s meeting in Istanbul has been extended by two days to discuss the Geneva conference and a new leadership, including the fate of provisional Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, who has not been able to form a provisional government since being appointed on March 19.
The coalition has been rudderless since the resignation of Moaz AlKhatib, a cleric who had floated two initiatives for Assad to leave power peacefully.