News / Middle East

Syria’s Opposition Leader Reaches Political Crossroads

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.
David Arnold
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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by: Dr. Hanz Fritz from: Germany
March 31, 2013 5:36 PM
what Americans do not understand is that the Baath Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasi Party are all identical ideologies. they are all fascist organizations who dominate all others by violence and fear. with the introduction of Islam into our country, the German experiment with "multiculturalism" has become the absolute negation of multiculturalism. only mass deportation of Muslims from our country can save our culture.

by: mona from: cairo
March 31, 2013 4:34 PM
Any crisis ,you must find Qatar .Here in Egypt, Syria ,and anywhere.
Really, Syrian people take care about your country from the two Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
March 30, 2013 7:48 AM
What I buy from all this argument is the support that all governance decisions should be made by the people of Syria. But how can the people be involved in decisions concerning their lives if the so many factions, even alien to Syria, continue to control the affairs? It has been said that the so many factions include terrorist groups like al qaida, hezbollah, muslim brotherhood and hamas, so how can these foster peace rather than foist on the people untenable demands of extremist islamic agenda - like being experienced in Egypt presently. The fear also includes arming such groups that have been hostile to liberties and freedoms ascribed in democracy and human rights in the name of fighting to liberate Syria from Assad. So the question is: What is the mission of the opposition; to remove Assad, or give democracy and freedom to the people? Right now the world inclines to seeing Assad as the problem in the Arab world; but this is far from the truth. Assad only represents the syndrome of sit-tightism, a syndrome of megalomania or melancholy. But that is only a fringe of the problems out there. The problem out there is how to open the society of the fundamentalist mentality of the stone aged reasoning out there to allow people live freely in freedoms and democracy, which cannot be achieved only by removing Assad, instead his removal worsens chances of attaining an egalitarian society where everyone lives according to their choices not forced on them but within the corridors of acceptable legislation and law. Therefore let every other effort stop except to find peace for Syria and the Middle East. Let the people come together to agree on the way forward. Otherwise more blood shed will continue, as the end is yet not in sight.

by: MUSTAFA from: PAKISTAN
March 30, 2013 6:26 AM
This is silly action by Amir Of Qatar to give Syrian seat to the Opposition who has no brain or even thinking how to solve the poor Syrian peoples. Their Main object to grab power and then enjoy their life like the life style of Amir of Qarat and King of Saudi Arabia in the name of ISLAM. In islam their is no LAVISH life LIKE AMIR AND KING. They can manipulate ISLAM in their personal interest but any body can show any AYAT IN QURAN that KING AND AMIR are passing their life as per QURAN. They are ACCOUNTABLE in front of GOD for their luxurious life in the name of ISLAM.

by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
March 29, 2013 11:01 PM
It is beyond pale, that 75,000+ Syrians, mostly civilians are dead, 2 million are internally displaced refugees, about 900,000 are externally displaced refugees and the whole lot of their leadership are acting as prima donnas; it appears that not one of them has enough common sense to put his suffering people ahead of his personal stupidity; this Kathib person should be thrown out flat on his rear and rejected by all all Syrians until he he grows up to at least 20 years of maturity, and stands to help his people, rather than just looking after himself, his own interests, and his own tunnel vision, rather than uniting the people on common issues. Such selfish leaders, can only soil the cause of the oppressed and suffering people in Syria. The Syrian opposition leadership, should try to emulate the 1000s of young men/kids that with their bare hands, with no training, no supplies, and clearly with very poor leaders, have stood up to the dictatorship and given their lives, so that this Kathib can act like a child!

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