Leader of Syrian opposition upbeat, determined and convincing as he bids for permanent title
SNC interim leader George Sabra is attempting to unite a fractious rebellion
President of the Syrian National Council (SNC) George Sabra. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Sitting alone in a large conference room in Istanbul days before a crucial and ultimately fruitless Syrian National Coalition (SNC) meeting last month, one might expect to find George Sabra, the group’s interim president, uptight.
But he is jovial, determined and convincing throughout a 90-minute interview. A long-time leftist and critic of the Assad regime, Sabra was arrested twice during the Syrian revolt before fleeing to Jordan in December 2011.
Syria’s political opposition is better known for its discord than anything else. Personality clashes, resignations by senior figures and competing ideologies have coloured its reaction to the Assad regime’s crackdown on the revolt in Syria, which by most recent estimates has left more than 100,000 people dead.
Last month Sabra sought the SNC presidency on a permanent basis. But such was the turmoil among member ranks that an agreement to hold elections was not reached. SNC members are to try again in Istanbul next week.
According to Sabra, the constellation of competing interests and figures in the opposition reflects Syria’s broad social make up: the country is home to large Kurdish, Christian and Alawite minority populations.
He said of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the popular former imam who resigned as head of the coalition in March: “He thinks with his heart. He is not a politician and isn’t interested in politics. He wants to help his people though I don’t think he will return to the leadership of the SNC.”
Sabra says he appreciates the support provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey but wouldn’t discuss their specific roles in arming Syrian rebels. “The opposition’s military affairs,” he said, “are not my brief.”
“General [Salim] Idris [the head of the Free Syrian Army] has his own system; he talks with his donors himself. For me, I’m interested in political issues. The military battles inside Syria – that’s his issue, not ours.”
‘Ashamed’ by rebel atrocity
Syrian rebels have been severely criticised recently for incidents of cannibalism and extrajudicial killings of civilians and captured government soldiers.
Sabra admitted he hadn’t watched footage of a rebel fighter carving open and appearing to bite an internal organ of a government soldier earlier this year, but was “ashamed of the incident, as a Syrian”.
The militarisation of the uprising, which has resulted in extreme Islamist fighters surging to the fore, has stoked fear in Syrians and western governments alike.
Groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra – a US-designated terrorist organisation – have greatly expanded their influence around the country in recent months. However, Sabra said he did not oppose Jabhat al-Nusra operating inside Syria.
“We are not foolish enough to give up fighting against the regime and start fighting [Jabhat al-Nusra].” The SNC, he said, has spoken to Jabhat al-Nusra fighters “here and there. But in general, as two leaderships of two parties, we haven’t yet.”
A major reason the revolt has so far failed to unseat the Assad regime has been that religious minority populations – estimated at about 25 per cent of Syria’s population – are fearful of what might come after.
As the revolt spread across Syria in 2011, Sabra wrote to Alawite sheikhs appealing to them to “think of the Syria we will have after the revolution”.