Moves in Riyadh against Turkish allies among Syria opposition

Membership change in High Negotiations Committee, formed to reach a UN-sponsored deal with the Assad regime, signals Saudi re-engagement

A Syrian woman who fled from government forces' advance on Maaret al-Numan in the south of the Idlib prvoince, carries a child at a camp for displaced people near the village of Harbnoush on December 27, 2019. Since mid-December, regime forces and their Russian allies have heightened bombardment on the southern edge of the final major opposition-held pocket of Syria, eight years into the country's devastating war. / AFP / Aref TAMMAWI

A reshuffle within a Syrian group that represents the opposition in UN-backed talks to try and end the civil war appears to have revived a regional struggle for influence over the factions opposed to Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

During a meeting in the Saudi capital on Saturday, eight out of 34-member High Negotiations Committee, in which Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood groups have significant influence, were replaced by figures closer to Riyadh, opposition sources said.

The eight made up the quota assigned to supposedly independent figures on the body formed of pro and anti-government figures to try and negotiate with the regime the end of the conflict, although the committee formally represents the opposition.

The remaining committee members belong to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is based in Istanbul; a Turkish-backed Kurdish group and three components who do not advocate Mr Assad’s removal – the so-called Cairo and Moscow platforms, and figures from Syrian regime areas.

Fawaz Tello, a veteran Syrian dissident, said the change is aimed at decreasing Turkey’s dominant role in the opposition.

“The opposition has turned into a playing card as the power struggles in the region intensify and become more complicated,” Mr Tello told The National from Berlin.

“The latest Saudi move does not cancel the Turkish role, but it starts to curb it,” said Mr Tello, a former political prisoner who does not belong to any opposition grouping.

Among the prominent figures in the eight new members of the committee is Muhannad Al Katee, a Syrian engineer and social researcher living in Saudi Arabia and specialising in eastern Syria.

Mr Al Katee is known for his criticism of the violence and dispossession practised by Kurdish militia against Syria’s Sunni Arabs but he does not condemn all Kurds.

Nibras El Fadel, a former adviser to President Al Assad who lives in France, is among the new members.

Mr Al Fadel is linked with Ayman Asfari, a Syrian-British oil services tycoon who had sponsored meetings of the Syrian opposition.

Those removed include Basma Qadmani, founder of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative, and Abduljabbar Al Akidi, a senior Syrian officer who had defected from the regime’s military and later fought the loyalist forces.

Riyadh and other powers had all but withdrawn from backing the opposition after the failures of the Geneva UN talks and the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, shortly before the committee was formed.

The UN-supervised Syria talks, first held in January 2014, have been suspended since 2017. Under Russian pressure and US acquiescence, the UN gave priority to the formation of a new Syrian constitution.

A 150-member Constitutional Committee met in Geneva in October, its members are equally drawn between the opposition, the regime and figures chosen by a special UN envoy for Syria, whose three predecessors had quit.

A significant proportion of the opposition delegation in the Constitutional Committee is also influenced by Turkey.