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”.
He says between stints in prison, he also met Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, one of two senior Christian clerics kidnapped in Aleppo in April, to convince him to abandon the Syrian regime. The kidnapping of Fr Fadi Haddad from Sabra’s hometown of Qatana last October quickly turned the local Christian population there against the uprising and the instability it has wrought.
Sectarian hatred, he said, was clearly a growing problem for the revolution.
“Not a single Alawite officer came out against the regime. What can we do about this?”
Being from a religious minority and representing the SNC – an organisation thought to be strongly influenced by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – has led to claims that Sabra’s position as leader amounts to little more than window dressing.
“The fact that Sabra is a Christian is not important to him or other people, but certainly it was convenient for the SNC to be able to demonstrate its non-sectarian nature by having at least one figure in its leadership body from a minority,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“But he is more of a street activist who knows how to get things done, to mobilise a strike.”
Sabra is sceptical that talks between the opposition and the Syrian government – proposed by the US and Russia, to take place in Geneva this summer – will succeed in ending the violence. Regime figures have “in principle” already agreed to attend.
He said, depending on who represented Damascus, the SNC might decide to forego the conference altogether.
“I think it’s too early for us to take a decision about attending. How can I say if I will attend or not if I don’t have any information about who will be there and what exactly will be discussed?” he said.
A date and agenda for the conference have yet to be announced, but Washington and Moscow believe a key first step to ending the conflict is to get regime and opposition figures together around a table.
Some say Sabra’s hardline position, one that sought to arm rebel groups from early on in the revolt, has left him with little room to manoeuvre. With the United States and Russia championing diplomacy, he may soon find his own stance defunct.
“His position has committed itself to armed struggle,” said Sayigh, of the Carnegie Center.
“The situation wasn’t ready for it.”
Sabra hopes to be made permanent president of the SNC at next week’s meeting in Istanbul, but other opposition figures say the SNC’s main sponsors – Qatar and Saudi Arabia – will keep him from achieving that.
“He has no chance of being elected because of his background,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a former leading opposition figure.
“The SNC seems to always want to put the cart before the horse and it is too well controlled by other countries for Sabra to win [the presidency].”