Swapping Sides in Syria
Figures who broke with the regime to join the opposition seem increasingly inclined to change course these days

By Abdel Bari Atwan

At the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, there was great excitement whenever an army officer, diplomat or official broke with the regime and joined the opposition. The Gulf-funded Arab media in particular would play up every such defection and turn it into headline news, portraying it as a devastating blow to a crumbling regime whose demise was imminent and inevitable.

Six years on, we seem increasingly to be witnessing the same trend in reverse: defections away from the opposition.

That was certainly the impression conveyed this week by Nawwaf al-Bashir, former opposition figure and sheikh of the huge Baggara tribe, in an interview with the Lebanese TV station al-Mayadeen. He supported the peaceful protest movement that broke out six years ago, and later moved to Turkey where he became active in opposition politics. But he became disillusioned and eventually opted to mend fences with the regime and returned to Damascus last year. He is now convinced that all Syrians must unite with their national army to defeat the violent extremists threatening their country before addressing matters of political reform.

Bashir’s long experience of the opposition in exile gave him many insights into its secrets, contacts and alliances, and he had much to say about its behaviour in his televised interview.

He charged that it had become beholden to the agendas of its foreign financiers –particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar — who were intent on destroying Syria and had lavished billions of dollars on terrorist groups to achieve that aim. He spoke of incidents of bribery, embezzlement and corruption among opposition leaders that, if verified and investigated, are likely to prove only the tip of an iceberg.

Among his revelations was that several opposition figures had visited Israel to solicit its support and negotiate trade-offs – not just the handful whose visits have been made public such as Kamal al-Labwani and Muhammad al-Masri, but others who kept their contacts and meetings with Israeli officials secret.

 He also detailed how a leading figure in an opposition group pocketed $116 million from donated Saudi funds and then moved to an unnamed Arab country were he established a political party. When a senior Saudi official was told about this by outraged members of the group, he disdainfully replied: ‘it’s our money, and he’s our man.’

Another was provided with sophisticated printing equipment by a donor country to enable him to produce fake Syria passports for opposition supporters — he turned it into a lucrative business by exploiting desperate refugees, making a fortune for himself by selling forged passports and, in the process, probably facilitating the entry of extremists into Europe.

Perhaps Bashir’s most potentially damaging revelation concerned the funding by Arab states of groups classified as ‘terrorist’ by the UN and Western and other governments.  This could cause them serious legal and political trouble if someone decides to address this issue one day or get international courts to do so. Bashir could become a star witness.

Opinions differ about the Bashir’s motives for breaking with the opposition and reconciling with the regime. His detractors say that he was politically marginalized and had failed to secure the financial support he sought, so finding himself lonely and broke in Turkey he decided to return home, and did so by getting Iran to clear his path.  His sympathizers, however, point out that he became openly critical of the regime back in 2005, six years before the revolution began, when he signed up to the ‘Damascus Declaration’ opposition manifesto — and there were no Gulf financial inducements available then.

Bashir also said that several other opposition leaders in exile were willing to return home provided they could be assured of their safety and settle their legal and political status. They were waiting to see how he would be treated, he said, and indicated that he would be mediating on their behalf.

He declined to name these individuals, obviously, but his revelation was not surprising, given the number of opposition leaders who have recently been publicly ‘revising’ their positions. These include political figures such as Moaz al-Khatib and Ahmad al-Jarba, and military ones like Gen. Mustafa ash-Sheikh —who headed the military council of the Free Syrian Arm but was sentenced to death for endorsing the Russian intervention against jihadis and now lives in Moscow.

Much that has been hidden is coming out into the open, and we may be witnessing a trend that could grow with surprising speed. We can only wait and see.

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