x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

President quits, PM lacks support: Syria's opposition in turmoil

Moaz Al Khatib cites failures of the international community as he quits top post, while the Free Syrian Army declares it does not support the recently elected prime minister, Ghassan Hitto. Phil Sands reports

Moaz Al Khatib has resigned as president of the country’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Moaz Al Khatib has resigned as president of the country’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.

The opposition to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad was plunged into disarray yesterday, after its leader resigned and its armed wing declared it does not support the newly elected rebel prime minister.

Moaz Al Khatib, a widely respected Islamic cleric, quit as president of the Syrian National Coalition citing failures of the international community and attempts by foreign powers to seize control of Syria's fractured opposition movement.

But in a statement released late yesterday, the coalition said it refused his resignation and asked him to reconsider.

"[Al] Khatib has led the Syrian National Coalition at a very critical stage. He has pushed the coalition forward skilfully, and has gained popularity and acceptance among the Syrian people," the statement said. A coalition spokesman said it was unclear whether the leader would agree to return.

In a further blow to an opposition that has struggled to unify throughout two years of rebellion, the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group representing a significant number of armed rebel factions fighting inside Syria, said it would not recognise Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister.

Mr Hitto, a US-educated Syrian business executive, was appointed prime minister by the Syrian National Coalition last week, and tasked with forming a government to oversee rebel-held areas of Syria.

Without the backing of the FSA, it is difficult to see how he can credibly remain in his post or have any hope of carrying out his duties.

Those two setbacks came as the opposition appeared to have won a symbolic diplomatic victory, with the Arab League announcing it considered the Syrian National Council the country's legitimate representatives, rather than the regime of president Bashar Al Assad.

Qatar invited Mr Hitto to attend the upcoming Arab League meeting, due to begin in Doha tomorrow - although without the FSA's endorsement, it remains unclear if he will take up the offer.

Announcing his resignation yesterday, Mr Al Khatib issued a statement saying he was "keeping a promise" to quit if certain "red lines" were crossed.

He did not specify what those red lines were, but referred to pressures on his leadership from the international backers of those trying to topple Mr Al Assad. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the US and Europe have been the most vocal supporters of the rebels.

"Those who are willing to obey [outside powers] will be supported, those who disobey will be offered nothing but hunger and siege," he said. "We will not beg for help from anyone."

Activists and rebel fighters have long complained of only getting money or arms from external powers if they agree to certain conditions, a system that seems to have bolstered radical Islamists groups and sidelined more secular factions.

Mr Al Khatib, a man of moderate views and non-sectarian attitudes, was known to be frustrated by these international pressures on the opposition, inadequate material support for rebels and at the bitter internal struggles plaguing rebel factions.

Since November, when he was made president of the Syrian National Coalition - the internationally recognised organisation of opponents to Mr Al Assad - the cleric vowed he would stand aside if he felt unable to sufficiently advance the goals of the revolution.

Yesterday he delivered on that pledge, but the timing of his resignation came as a shock to activists in Syria. A member of the Revolution Council in Damascus, a key opposition group in the capital, said they had not expected Mr Al Khatib's decision and were seeking clarification over the move.

Resigning may only serve to bolster Mr Al Khatib's reputation among Syrians, who are used to watching government and opposition leaders cling jealously to whatever power they have. Few walk away from positions of influence, as Mr Al Khatib has just done.

For the opposition, which has been trying to improve its reputation and credibility by delivering real improvements in rebel-held zones, the resignation is certain to come as a setback.

Efforts to establish a uniform legal system and unify command of various armed rebel groups seem likely to be put on hold.

There is no obvious successor to Mr Al Khatib - no figure of similar stature and reputation who would be able to step into his shoes and enjoy the backing of the broad range of rebel factions.

Lingering divisions within the opposition were underlined by the FSA's refusal to back Mr Hitto - who had been endorsed by Mr Al Khatib before his resignation - as opposition prime minister.

At his selection last week, Mr Hitto was not unanimously supported, with some opposition figures walking out after the ballot in which he won 35 out of 49 votes. The FSA yesterday said it would only give its backing to a consensus candidate, supported by all of the opposition.

Whether such a candidate exists remains unclear.

"I speak on behalf of the [rebel] military councils and the chief of staff when I say that we cannot recognise a prime minister who was forced on the National Coalition, rather than chosen by consensus," Louay Muqdad, the FSA political and media coordinator, told the AFP news agency.

"We call on coalition members to make right what was wrong," he added, without elaborating.

John Kerry , the US secretary of state, said he was sorry to learn of Mr Al Khatib's resignation, but that it would not affect US support for the Syrian National Coalition.


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