Could an Alawite be the future head of a double-edged Syrian opposition?

Few Alawites have joined the Syrian opposition since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A 2017 file photo shows a meeting of a delegation of Syria’s main opposition High Negotiations Committee with the UN special envoy for Syria during peace talks in Geneva. (AFP)
Musical chairs. A 2017 file photo shows a meeting of a delegation of Syria’s main opposition High Negotiations Committee with the UN special envoy for Syria during peace talks in Geneva. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Until surfacing in the Syrian opposition media late last year, few had heard of Nibras al-Fadel, a former adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Paris-based economist is suddenly in the spotlight, parachuted into the High Negotiations Committee by Saudi Arabia in December and expected to replace its negotiations head, Naser al-Hariri.

Some say he might replace Hadi al-Bahra, co-president of the Constitutional Committee, who is considered by many in the opposition to be weak and politically inexperienced.

Fadel’s name failed to attract much attention because he left Syria years before the war started in 2011. Meaning he did not defect, like former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab nor did he play any memorable role in any of the political parties and initiatives that surfaced in the nearly decade-long war.

During his tenure in Syria, Fadel played a crucial role in negotiating the Syrian-EU Partnership Agreement, back at a time when Damascus was on very favourable terms with the European Union.

Fadel was recently chosen to join the 150-member Constitutional Committee, which started work in October under the auspices of the United Nations. In December, he attended a hastily assembled conference in Riyadh, convened to replace eight members of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) deemed to have questionable loyalties to Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Fadel was one of the eight new faces ushered into the HNC, under the watchful eye of Saudi Arabia. Hariri was excluded from the meeting, explaining why many say his days are numbered as head of the Syrian opposition.

Fadel’s father, Mohammad, is well known in Syria. A co-founder of the ruling Ba’ath Party, he was close to former Syrian President Hafez Assad and became president of Damascus University. He was assassinated by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1977.

At the time, the Brotherhood was assassinating any government figure it could get its hands on, regardless of sect, ranging from officers and pilots to doctors, engineers and university professors.

Since then, his son Nibras has had nothing but spite for the outlawed Islamist group, making him an automatic nuisance to Turkey and an asset to countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who all consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, no different from al-Qaeda.

More important, Fadel is an Alawite, hailing from the same religious minority as Assad. Few Alawites have joined the Syrian opposition since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, fearing the wrath of their community or scared off by the radical Sunni elements among the armed groups, who have repeatedly promised to slaughter the Alawites, who make up roughly 12% of the Syrian population. A slogan raised early in the Syrian uprising was: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave!”

All opposition groups failed to provide assurances to the Alawites and other minority groups, explaining why many rallied behind the regime, fearing the unknown should the regime collapse.

One of the Alawites who marked a visible exception was actor Gamal Soliman, now working with the Egypt-based Cairo Platform. Another was Aref Dalila, the ageing former dean of the faculty of economics at Damascus University. Fadel makes a third, although he has far less of a profile than either Soliman or Dalila.

If it does happen, propping an Alawite as head of the opposition is a double-edged sword. True, it might prompt some Alawites to reconsider but not many because they know little to nothing about Fadel.

Such a move runs the high risk of alienating a wide segment of armed opposition groups with an exclusively Sunni agenda, all on Turkish payroll. Veterans who have been active in opposition ranks would reject him, claiming he is a political nobody with no history of service to the Syrian uprising. They would say he knows little about Syria, having lived most of his life abroad.

Some said he is not really a member of the opposition, claiming Fadel is connected to Damascus and would discreetly try to influence the political process to its liking.

The Muslim Brotherhood would undoubtedly reject his nomination because of his father and the fact that he is an Alawite. They have no representation in the Constitutional Committee, however, but are strongly represented in the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.

Turkey is unimpressed with Saudi Arabia’s attempts at monopolising the opposition, accusing it of trespassing on territory that has been mostly in Erdogan’s hands since 2011.

Whatever little reason Turkey had to cooperate with the international community on Syria has vanished, as Ankara’s relationship with Russia collapses over the renewed assault on Idlib. Freed from all obligations they had made to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Turks will push for figures who are pro-Erdogan to the bone, earning Fadel an immediate veto from Ankara.