The revolution against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took a big step forward over the weekend with the opposition’s election of Ahmad Maath al-Khatib,
a Muslim cleric, as leader. Arab leaders in the region have praised the result as al-Khatib begins traveling through the region to build international partnerships for Syrian regime change.
The vote took place Sunday in Doha, Qatar, among representatives from the mainly expatriate Syrian National Council
(SNC), a number of smaller groups representing activists and militants inside Syria and a broad range of religious, political and tribal interests in the country.
The choice of Khatib was designed to offer hope for the various Syrian opposition groups to achieve a number of crucial goals, among them winning international recognition as a legitimate replacement for the 12-year-old regime of President Assad. In 18 months Syria’s civil war has cost
The first step towards recognition will take place at the Arab League
The opposition meetings last week and over the weekend came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared
the SNC had failed to win enough support inside and outside Syria to unite the country’s fragmented opposition. To be effective, Clinton said, the “… opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.”
After several days of long and heated debate, Khatib and the new opposition leadership team prevailed. He now faces major challenges — such as taking command of the fragmented militias now battling Assad’s still formidable military.
Making the rounds for international support
"The first step towards recognition will take place at the Arab League," Khatib told a new conference in Doha. Several Arab League leaders have already given Khatib and the new coalition their blessing. His next stop may well be London, where Prime Minister David Cameron said they would discuss
how to help Syria’s opposition achieve its goals.
The new coalition would then seek endorsement from Syria’s Arab neighbors and other Assad foes in the so-called "Friends of Syria" group and from the U.N. General Assembly.
Khatib’s largest hurdle, however, could be in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have consistently rejected outside intervention against Assad.
Arab and western governments have said they want to are eager to see a transitional administration capable of gaining popular support inside Syria and coordinating the strategies of the opposition militants, now loosely organized regionally under military councils and calling themselves the the Free Syrian Army (FSA) even though they fight under various flags.
Crucial to the FSA’s military efforts is the possibility of increased financial and military support from the 70-member “Friends of Syria,” which last met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September and expressed concern about divisions among the Syrian opposition. France initiated the Group of the Friends of the Syrian People last year to discuss resolution of the conflict outside of the United Nations, where Russia and China have blocked Security Council efforts to unseat Assad.
Qatar remains one of the few countries providing military support to the opposition. Other nations are waiting for assurances that any weapons they send would not go to militant units such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is considered a jihadists group and a threat to Syrian secularists.
The Assad regime has been isolated by most of the world community since it began cracking down on the opposition early last year. The crackdown included the shelling and destruction of entire neighborhoods in cities such as the capital, Damascus, and Syria’s largest commercial center, Aleppo.
The new voice of Syria’s opposition
Reporters at Doha described Khatib, who is a new face on the international political scene, as soft-spoken, but direct.
In his opening speech, Khatib called on members of the Syrian military to defect and join the revolution and appealed for Syrian unity in a common cause.
“We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian… and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” he said.
“He understands that the extraordinary quality of Syria is that it is a country with many religions, many languages [and] many ethnicities.”
Pamphlets distributed at the conference described the 52-year-old Damascus native as a moderate Muslim cleric and a committed activist in the current uprising. He was arrested four times by Syrian security for participating in peaceful protests against the Assad regime, the pamphlets said.
A friend of Khatib for 20 years, Syrian broadcaster Rana Kabbani told the Guardian
, “The man is someone who all parties, whatever their ideological background, ethnicities or feelings about the former regime, will be able get behind. He is a man of real moral qualities.
He understands that the extraordinary quality of Syria is that it is a country with many religions, many languages [and] many ethnicities
Khatib, who is married and has four children, comes from a family of Islamic scholars and served as the preacher at the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus 20 years ago. He co-founded and remains active in the Islamic Modernization Movement and has lectured and preached in several countries in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.
In addition, he worked for more than four years as a geophysicist for al-Furat Petroleum, Syria’s major oil producer.
A political coalition seeking new definition
Despite the progress in Doha, much remains unresolved about the shape of the larger anti-Assad coalition, including its name. One proposal called for formation of a new grouping is the “National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition.” The original proposal was called the Syrian National Initiative
The Doha gathering named two deputies assist Khatib. One is Riad Seif
, who championed the Syrian National Initiative approach with support from the U.S. State Department. Seif is a successful Damascus industrialist who has been involved in opposition politics for more than a decade. He has spent more than seven years in prison, five of them on treason charges before leaving Syria last year.
Although a member of the SNC executive committee, Seif’s Syrian National Initiative offered the SNC a significantly reduced role only 10 of 50 seats in the SNI.
In an effort to broaden its role, the SNC conducted elections last week for new officers, expelled Seif from the executive committee and elected a new president, George Sabra, a Christian. Sabra immediately criticized the Seif’s SNI proposals and indicated that it might be discussed sometime in the future. In the end, however, the SNC accepte the SNI proposal and wound up with 22 seats on a 60-member council.
Khatib’s second deputy is Suhair Atassi,
an activist and human rights advocate from Homs who was one of the few women in the previous SNC leadership. A month before the Arab Spring uprisings began, Atassi and others were attacked and beaten at a candlelight vigil on Bab Touma Square by shabiha, or pro-government militia.
Bringing that many opposition groups together was a major step. It is difficult to look at the new coalition body and say the opposition is still not unite
She now runs the Jamal Atassi Forum, a group that has for many years campaigned inside Syria for an end to the 1963 emergency laws, a reinstatement of civil rights and other political reforms.
Atassi also was an organizer of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, a coalition of local activist committees that has conducted demonstrations and anti-government work stoppages.
How will ‘Friends’ aid the newly united Syrian opposition?
Following the unity vote over the weekend, the United States issued a statement promising “that our humanitarian and non-lethal assistance serves the needs of the Syrian people… “ as the new coalition … charts a course toward the end of Assad's bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future...".
Another member of the opposition’s new leadership group is Khalid Saleh, who told the Guardian, “There were promises of full support. That includes, I think, diplomatic, political, financial, even possibly arming the revolutionary forces on the ground. At this point, we are looking to the next couple of weeks to see. We have done our part …
“Bringing that many opposition groups together was a major step. It is difficult to look at the new coalition body and say the opposition is still not unite,” Saleh said.