Ahmad al-Jarba was elected president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main Syrian opposition group in exile, on July 6, 2013. Al-Jarba is one of the original members of the Damascus Declaration, a secular umbrella opposition coalition, and was imprisoned at least twice by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his political activity.
Born in the largely Kurdish northern city of Qamishli in 1969, al-Jarba is a tribal leader from a clan from the northeastern Syrian province of al-Hasakah. He has been a key player in negotiating differences between Syria’s eastern tribes and the opposition. While tribes have played a key role in the opposition movement’s inception and continuation, as well as in defending the regime, in some cases they have sought to maintain independence from both the opposition and the regime.
Al-Jarba has close ties to Saudi Arabia, which—along with its regional rival Qatar—is a key supporter of the Syrian political opposition. The two countries have been and locked in a struggle for influence over the rebels. Al-Jarba’s victory in the run-off election over a candidate supported by Qatar is seen as a significant shift toward greater Saudi control over the Syrian political opposition, which had been dominated by Qatar and the Qatar-supported Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Jarba left the Syrian National Council, a body set up shortly after the uprising began as an umbrella group for the exiled opposition, in favor of its successor organization, the National Coalition. Shortly thereafter, he left the coalition in protest of the election of Ghassan Hitto as president of Syria’s interim government in March 2013 in what was seen as a reflection of the tensions within the opposition between those backed by Qatar, which supported Hitto, and those backed by Saudi Arabia.
In mid-2013, al-Jarba rejoined the coalition and aligned himself with opposition figure Michel Kilo’s liberal bloc, which joined the National Coalition in late May 2013 in response to pressure from Riyadh to expand membership to non–Muslim Brotherhood activists.
After U.S. President Barack Obama announced the possibility of foreign military intervention in Syria in late August 2013, al-Jarba called on Western powers to launch a strike against the regime and hand over Assad to the International Criminal Court. Al-Jarba is reported to have lobbied the Arab League in a September 1, 2013, meeting for support of U.S. military intervention in Syria, a measure the league had declined to support a week earlier. After the September 1 meeting, the Arab League urged international action but stopped short of calling for Western military strikes.
Al-Jarba has also consistently pushed for increased international military support for the Syrian rebels.