BEIRUT — The election of new leadership by the umbrella coalition of Syrian opposition figures reflects an internal policy shift toward the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia, according to insiders and policy analysts.
In Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the U.S. has designated as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, elected Ahmed Assi al-Jarba, to lead the group. Jarba is described as a secular moderate with close tribal and political ties to Saudi Arabia.
The vote was close, reflecting the often contentious and disparate nature of the coalition, which was formed last year at the behest of the United States, but which has struggled to organize itself since.
Its previous leader, Moaz Khatib, a widely known Syrian cleric, resigned in May after he was criticized from within the group for advocating peace talks with the regime of President Bashar Assad.
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Jarba’s key task will be uniting the disparate factions into a functioning opposition movement, including appointing a government-in-exile that would stand ready to take control of Syria should Assad be forced from office.
While the United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the group, it has delivered very little of that aid out of concern the group is too unstable to spend it wisely, U.S. officials said. While the appointment of a government was to have happened months ago, only a prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, a longtime U.S. resident, has been named.
The group also needs to establish a working relationship with secular rebels under the command of defected Syrian Gen. Salim Idriss, to whom the United States and others have said they will direct military equipment bound for anti-Assad forces.
Considered a secular voice in a movement that has been dominated by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Jarba is a chief of the Shammar tribe, one of the Arab world’s most powerful clans, with members stretching from southern Turkey to Saudi Arabia.
He was jailed early in the revolt against Assad, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. After being released from prison in August 2012, he fled to Saudi Arabia, where his tribal connections put him in touch with senior members of the Saudi intelligence services.
His election was widely seen inside the opposition coalition as a step by the Saudis to take control of the civilian and armed anti-Assad movement, which until now has been guided primarily by Qatar, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and has also been providing arms to some anti-Assad rebel groups.
Qatar, which is undergoing a peaceful political transition and which was close to toppled Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, has begun to withdraw somewhat from its efforts to fund and control various rebel factions.
That may be an important development in the U.S. effort to undercut the more radical elements of the Syrian opposition, many of which had received Qatari support.