Syrian Opposition Rifts and Saudi Fears

3 MINS READMay 17, 2012 | 19:59 GMT
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun in Cairo on April 24

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of Syria's Western-backed political opposition front, said May 17 that he would resign as soon as his replacement was found. The announcement comes just days after he was re-elected as president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) for another three-month term.

Ghalioun's decision was spurred by increasingly visible fissures within Syria's political opposition movement, which are explained in part by growing dissent against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's perceived monopolization of the SNC. Reservations about the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance over the SNC are limited not only to Syrian opposition factions. Saudi Arabia, a major financier for the Syrian rebels, is more likely to throw its support behind Salafists in trying to fortify the Syrian insurgency — a strategy that carries significant risks.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which make up a grassroots network of activists based both inside and outside Syria, have opposed the mostly exiled SNC leadership for failing to integrate and represent the various factions of the opposition movement and for monopolizing the movement's decision-making process. 

Numerous matters divide the Syrian opposition. One of the main points of contention between the SNC and the LCCs is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's perceived domination of the SNC. The Muslim Brotherhood is the only Syrian opposition group that had a reasonably well-organized network prior to the uprising. Though Ghalioun, a Paris-based secular exile, shares the LCCs' concern about the Brotherhood's influence over the SNC, many of the LCCs' Syrian activists lobbied for George Sabra, a Christian, to lead the SNC so as to attract more religious minorities to the opposition movement and to assuage fears that a post-al Assad Syria would mean Sunni domination via the Brotherhood.

Outside players also have reservations about the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia fears the regional ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood and its republican form of Islamism. Even so, Riyadh has reluctantly cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria while simultaneously working to keep the Brotherhood's political gains from undermining the Saudi regime. As a result, Saudi Arabia has discouraged politically driven Islamism and has instead endorsed a more rigid version of Salafist Islamism to keep the Islamist political scene divided.

The Saudi preference for backing Salafists to contain the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that a recently reported influx of money and weapons heading from the Gulf Arab states to the Syrian rebel forces is likely intended for the Salafists, rather than the Brotherhood-dominated SNC and the LCC network. Stratfor has received a number of indications that Saudi-backed Salafists are increasing their presence in northern Lebanon to aid the Syrian insurgency.

Such a strategy carries significant risks. Even though the Saudis prefer Salafists over the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists lack the political foundation that the Brotherhood uses in its bid to integrate into Syrian society. Saudi Arabia does not want to see Salafists develop a similar grounding in electoral politics, one that could lead the Saudi religious establishment to make political demands that threaten the Saudi monarchy. In another risk, Salafists who have shunned Brotherhood-style electoral politics are more likely to turn to jihadism. Jubhat al Nasra, which is emerging as the premier jihadist group in the Syrian rebellion and has claimed responsibility for the majority of large improvised explosive device attacks against Syrian security and intelligence targets, embodies the gradually expanding jihadist presence in Syria.

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