Rana Moussaoui, AFP
Last updated: 22 April, 2013

Syria’s opposition looks to new leadership

Syria’s divided opposition is seeking a new leader after Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib’s resignation, eyeing a candidate who can mediate internal disputes and rivalries between key backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Khatib, a popular figure both inside and outside Syria, has thrown in the towel twice in the space of a month, ostensibly to protest the international community’s failure to stop a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

His initial resignation, in late March, was never officially accepted by the National Coalition grouping, but he insisted on stepping down and an interim replacement is now actively being sought, according to opposition sources.

On his Facebook page, he described feeling “powerless” and “trapped in a cage” in the face of the ongoing violence in his country, with no apparent military or diplomatic solution on the horizon.

Despite signs of support, including a US pledge to double non-lethal aid to the opposition, rebel forces have been disappointed by a Western refusal to supply them weapons.

Five months after being elected, “Khatib realised that there was no real engagement by the international community, despite all their promises,” said Khatter Abou Diab, international relations professor at the University of Paris-Sud.

International support for the opposition “is not comparable to that of the allies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” he told AFP.

Russia has continued to arm Damascus throughout the conflict, while Iran provides key economic aid, and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah battle alongside regime forces, according to opposition and NGO claims.

Khatib’s resignation also came amid significant dissent within the opposition ranks, which has complicated efforts to present a unified front, Abou Diab said.

“He realised there were no dynamics within the opposition that could help him.”

The Coalition, which was intended to bring together a range of opposition groups and ultimately better represent and serve Syrians in rebel-held areas, has failed in its mandate, Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre said.

It “has failed to provide a political strategy to defeat the regime and at the same time failed to provide the liberated areas with effective administration and basic services or security,” he told AFP.

The body has elected a rebel prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, but despite trips inside Syria, he has yet to name a cabinet.

Hitto’s election, and his mandate to form a government — both backed by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood — caused tension inside the Coalition, and contributed to Khatib’s decision to resign, Abou Diab said.

“He feared a duplication of his role,” he said.

Other analysts pointed to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which they say back different factions within the Coalition, the former in harmony with the United States and the latter with Turkey.

“Any process of rebuilding the opposition necessarily implies a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, told AFP.

“This is evidently not a forgone conclusion, but if the this reconciliation occurs, we’ll be moving towards a more modest organisation, not running after illusory Western promises, but managing what it can be,” he added.

More important, Pierret said, would be building ties between the Coalition and the rebel Free Syrian Army.

“The future of the Coalition is, without doubt, to become in large part the political representation of the FSA.”