The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the official, Istanbul-based opposition to the regime in Damascus, elected its new president on 9 July, following the end of the two six-month terms of the previous incumbent, Ahmad Jarba.

The new man in charge – the former Saudi-based, Damascus-born businessman Hadi al-Bahra – was the SNC’s chief negotiator at the failed Geneva peace talks earlier this year, and is regarded as a safe and capable pair of hands to press for a viable political alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Al-Bahra’s challenge is to reinvigorate the opposition movement and build momentum for concerted international action to help oust the Baathist leadership. It is a daunting task for the smooth-talking politician. Rarely in its three-year gestation has the SNC appeared as irrelevant as it does now, for all the Saudi funding that has flowed its way over the past year.

Lost traction

Squeezed on one side by a revitalised regime, which with the help of its Hezbollah and Iranian allies has gradually won back territory from the rebels in key strategic areas such as Qusair and Homs, and on the other by the rapid advance of the hardline Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), which is busily carving out its own fief across large swathes of territory from Aleppo to Tikrit, the SNC has lost much of whatever traction it once enjoyed.

Rarely in its three-year gestation has the coalition appeared as irrelevant as it does now

Although recognised by the West and the GCC as the main body representing the opposition to Al-Assad, the SNC has little influence inside Syria – neither among the battling rebel factions taking the fight to government forces, nor among the Sunni elite of Damascus, who hold little truck with the Alawite-dominated regime. Al-Bahra must somehow reinforce the coalition’s relevance and challenge a perception among many Syrians that it is little more than a front for Saudi foreign policy influence, providing cash for SNC leaders to live well in five-star hotels in Istanbul.

Above all, the SNC president must ensure the coalition does not come to be seen as a Syrian version of the discredited Iraqi opposition that was led by Ahmad Chalabi.

The SNC is at least a more coherent outfit than it was in 2011-12, when rival factions were fighting for control of the Syrian National Council, the predecessor of the coalition. The SNC may now be under the Saudi orbit, which brings its own challenges, but it is at least speaking with one voice. That is largely due to Jarba’s efforts to ensure it was in alignment with Riyadh’s interests.

Al-Bahra has close ties to the Saudi leadership. That still carries weight in international diplomatic circles

“The days of internal fracture with different external backers are behind it,” says Christopher Phillips, an associate fellow at London-based think-tank Chatham House. “But that isn’t really because it is now in a position of strength, but because it is in a position of weakness. The SNC has recognised that because it has become marginalised, it is better to stick with one backer rather than many.”

With Al-Assad’s forces preparing to besiege rebels in Aleppo, the coalition is desperately seeking some form of outside intervention to stall the advance. As yet, that does not appear to be on the agenda.

Indeed, the marginalisation of the SNC is only likely to increase in light of the rise of Isis. According to Phillips, the SNC leadership is concerned about losing the remainder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to the militant group, either through combat or defection.

The emergence of Isis has clearly played to Damascus’ advantage, enabling it to portray the mainstream FSA/SNC factions as weak and irrelevant. “It has strengthened Al-Assad’s hand to be able to claim that the regime is the only alternative to the Isis advance,” says Phillips.

Leveraging ties

There are some cards, however, that Al-Bahra can play as he settles into the job, having previously been the SNC’s chief negotiator at the failed Geneva peace talks in February. Like Jarba, who will remain a key figure in opposition ranks, Al-Bahra has close ties to the Saudi leadership. That still carries weight in international diplomatic circles.

According to a policy briefing by the Brookings Doha Center, the reinforcement of moderate insurgent groups and the early-April arrival of Saudi-supplied and American-manufactured anti-tank guided missiles in Syria, particularly in the hands of Harakat Hazm (a rebel group linked to Syrian Military Council General Salam Idriss) could make a difference on the ground.

Jarba’s brief is to help bolster the role of the FSA by establishing new military brigades under his command. He will also seek to steer Saudi funding to these groups.

That may have some impact, but Syrian analysts suggest it may be a case of too little, too late and possibly irrelevant, given the drama being played out on the sidelines in which Iran appears to be developing back-channel contacts to some rebel Syrian factions.

There is speculation that the Islamic Republic, even though it is a strong supporter of the Al-Assad regime, has attempted to reach out to a previous Syrian opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib.

Iran strategy

“The real story right now is not taking place within the coalition, it is focused on whatever is taking place between Iran and credible voices such as Al-Khatib, with the potential for some arrangement that would mean it was not a complete victory for the regime,” says Omar Imady, an analyst at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews in the UK.

Such an attempt is unlikely to be on the terms of the SNC, which remains firmly against cutting a deal that enables the regime to survive in any shape or form.

Al-Khatib cuts a more independent figure than the current pro-Saudi leadership of the SNC, and this independence, although ensuring him stronger support inside Syria as a credible indigenous opposition leader, means he is isolated in the ranks of the formal opposition. “Al-Khatib is a loner with his own perspective,” says Imady. “He has been talking about negotiations with the regime, demanding that they release women and children from the prisons.”

There is no clarity yet on how serious Iran is about forging relationships with the Syrian opposition, nor what it ultimately seeks to gain from the process. One rumour suggested that Tehran was seeking to build support for Al-Khatib as the prime minister of a unity government in which presidential authority would be decreased.

Support for negotiation has come from Russia, which on 7 July reiterated its proposal to engage Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Syrian reconciliation effort. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said “an idea to create a parallel track” to the Geneva talks has been voiced in order to boost the negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition groups.

The possibility of Tehran forcing the Al-Assad regime to negotiate with credible Syrian opposition leaders comes against a backdrop of the Islamic Republic’s own talks with the West, as it attempts to meet the terms of the P5+1 group of countries for ending its nuclear weapons programme.

Talk of a regional “grand bargain” between Iran and the West and its regional allies, and which could take in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, may be premature. Yet the SNC leadership will be keenly aware that they will not be in a position to challenge Saudi policy should Riyadh seek its own accommodation with Tehran.

The advantage for the Syrian opposition is that Damascus’ interests do not appear as entwined with Iran as once might have appeared the case, and this is an area they might seek to exploit.

“The Al-Assad regime is only interested in total military victory and wants the complete capitulation of the opposition,” says Imady. “Iran is more nuanced; it wants to know how this would be perceived by Sunnis around the region, and it has more to worry about on the regional strategic level.”

Tough choice

The Iranians are trying to forge an arrangement that does not result in the rebels’ complete surrender. “Tehran is looking around for people to engage with and sees Al-Khatib, whose advantage is that he is independent and won’t do what Saudi Arabia or Qatar says, and isn’t on anyone’s payroll,” says Imady. “But the problem is he only has credibility among FSA rebels so long as he doesn’t negotiate with the regime.”

Many Syrians will distrust Iran’s motives in reaching out to the rebels. But Tehran has negotiated local truces in the past, such as the one in Homs earlier in 2014, which enabled the Syrian rebels under siege to leave with their weapons intact – an insistence of the Iranians, despite the misgivings of Al-Assad’s forces.

The SNC, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle in maintaining its relevance in the game, with the momentum ceded to Isis and the regime. Al-Bahra’s smooth diplomatic skills will be stretched to the limit if he is to keep the official opposition’s voice resounding both internationally and at home.

Riyadh and Doha compete for influence in the coalition

Hadi al-Bahra’s appointment as president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) underlines the strong Saudi voice among the Syrian opposition since 2013, having previously been heavily influenced by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Efforts to build consensus between the two main factions inside the opposition have failed to yield significant fruit.

An attempt to elect the Qatari-backed Khalid Khoja as secretary-general to offset the Saudi-backed president did not materialise, although the new secretary-general, Nasr al-Hariri, is still considered an ally of Qatar.

These rivalries highlight the division of spoils between the Qatar and Saudi-backed factions inside the SNC. Previous SNC secretary-general Mustafa al-Sabbagh was loyal to Doha, but last year, pressure from Riyadh ensured the top jobs went to its supporters, starting with Ahmad Jarba as president. 

Jarba – a native of eastern Syria, and member of the Shammar tribe that has links in Saudi Arabia – remains a key decision-maker within the SNC, and is understood to control the disbursement of Saudi funds. And in the SNC, the paymaster calls the shots.

Key fact

The new president was the Syrian National Coalition’s chief negotiator at the failed Geneva peace talks earlier this year

Source: MEED