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Syria’s Opposition Leader Reaches Political Crossroads

  • David Arnold

Mouaz al-Khatib (center) keynoted the Syrian opposition’s history-making March 27 premiere as the replacement in the League of Arab States for the troubled government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mouaz al-Khatib (center) keynoted the Syrian opposition’s history-making March 27 premiere as the replacement in the League of Arab States for the troubled government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The man now representing the Syrian opposition to the world almost didn’t attend his own coming out party. Indeed, Mouaz al-Khatib had resigned as president of the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition two days before a scheduled Arab League meeting in Doha and hadn’t even planned to attend the gathering.

So when the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, introduced Mouaz al-Khatib to the Arab League leaders meeting in Doha on Tuesday and gave his group Syria’s long-vacant seat, there was a long round of applause.

Khatib went on to deliver a stirring speech about the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and later formally took possession of Syria’s embassy in Doha with Arab and western ambassadors in attendance.

The Syrian opposition is going through a crisis right now.
The Syrian opposition’s new seat at the Arab League further isolated the Assad regime from the rest of the Arab world and international communities and highlighted Khatib’s efforts to pull together the fragmented and quarreling factions of the Syrian revolutionaries.

He had resigned as president of the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces last weekend, but other Coalition leaders refused to accept his resignation. And even after Doha, it was unclear whether Khatib would return to the Coalition or seek some wider mandate in the overall movement to oust Assad from Damascus.

Opposition in crisis

To some Syria experts, Khatib’s announced resignation as Coalition leader raised alarms about the group’s very survival amid the flurry of factional struggles among the various opposition components.

“The Syrian opposition is going through a crisis right now,” remarked Amr al-Azm, a Middle Eastern scholar at a Shawnee University in Ohio who monitors Syrian politics.

Khatib’s resignation “threatened the very survival of the Coalition as a representative of the Syrian people,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the London School of Economics Middle East Studies Center.

The turmoil and uncertainty clouding the opposition comes at a critical time for Syria. More than 70,000 people have been killed so far in the two-year civil war. Thousands more are missing, and between four and five million have been left homeless inside Syria or refugees in neighboring countries.

According to Walid al-Bunni, a Coalition spokesman, Khatib’s decision to attend the Arab League summit in Doha came only at the last minute. Bunni said Khatib told him the night before that he wouldn’t attend.

I think Khatib will emerge as one of the most important players during their struggle and the post-Assad struggle.
“The next morning, he said ‘I have to go,’” Bunni confided.

Then Qatar gave Khatib the central role at the meeting after he was backed by a delegation of eight National Coalition representatives in Doha.

Looking for a larger role?

Does Khatib have a role to play in reshaping Syria?

“Absolutely,” said Gerges. “He made it very clear he would like to play a bigger role, a freer role outside the confines of the Coalition.

“He is a very charismatic leader … who puts his finger on the pulse of the middle class, the religious establishment and the Sunni community inside Syria itself.

“I think Khatib will emerge as one of the most important players during their struggle and the post-Assad struggle.”

Challenges for Khatib

When the Coalition was created last November, its creators saw Khatib – a well-known Damascus critic of the government, a moderate Sunni and a popular preacher from a family Islamic scholars – as a fresh and credible new face to present to Syria and the world.

But Khatib surprised many with his independent spirit, most notably when he violated an opposition taboo and called on the Assad regime to take part in negotiations to end the conflict. Khatib survived the criticism and now is expected to take on two issues said to be behind his decision to step down as Coalition president.

One is his failure so far to get a steady supply of western weapons for rebel forces. Khaled Saleh, Coalition media director, said Khatib grew frustrated after European Union refused weapons at a Dublin meeting.

The second was the Coalition’s recent decision to select a prime minister who would form a government to pursue full diplomatic recognition in the United Nations.

Let Syrians make the choices

Khatib favors a slower, less political structure for the Syrian opposition for now, one that would allow more flexibility in dealing with a post-Assad Syria. He also has been pressing for more humanitarian relief in rebel-held areas and support for newly created civic administrations.

Fawaz Gerges says the selection of Ghassan Hitto to be prime minister was engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood and a faction lead by the Coalition’s secretary-general who enjoys the financial backing of Qatari interests.

Khatib argues that all governance decisions should be made by the people of Syria.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and external powers really exercise control over the Coalition and the major decisions that have been made,” says Gerges. “You have a structural crisis, and the election of Ghassan Hitto has brought to the fore the major fundamental divisions of the Coalition.”

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