x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria rebel leader Al Khatib in an odd limbo

Syrian National Coalition leader's resignation may have been a clever gambit designed to cement his position as a leader behind which the revolutionaries can finally unite. Analysis by Phil Sands

Moaz Al Khatib (left), Syrian interim government prime minister Ghassan Hitto (second from right) and the SNC's George Sabra (right) stand with a Qatari official at the inauguration of the Syrian interim government’s embassy in Doha.
Moaz Al Khatib (left), Syrian interim government prime minister Ghassan Hitto (second from right) and the SNC's George Sabra (right) stand with a Qatari official at the inauguration of the Syrian interim government’s embassy in Doha.

Moaz Al Khatib has resigned as head of the Syrian National Coalition, but that did not stop him from representing Syria's opposition at the Arab League summit in Doha.

He remains in an odd limbo - the boss, despite having quit on Sunday - amid bizarre squabbling about whether he is actually allowed to resign.

It is a suitably confusing denouement to a baffling few days in the history of Syrian opposition politics, which at the best of times can seem farcical.

Underneath the absurdity of it all are profound and bitter divisions that plague those trying to topple the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Seen in that light, far from spelling the end of Mr Al Khatib's prominent role in the uprising, his resignation may have been a clever gambit designed to cement his position as a leader behind which the revolutionaries can finally unite.

Rather than walking away from political life, there are good reasons to believe Mr Al Khatib is hoping both to trim back the Muslim Brotherhood's role in top-level opposition politics, and to spur the West into providing more decisive support.

His attempt to resign shocked influential street activists inside Syria, who had no indication the popular former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus was about to quit.

But it was not the first time he has taken a dramatic step without consulting his allies.

His last surprise had been January's announcement that he was willing to negotiate with the Assad government. On the surface it dramatically reversed the opposition's long-held policy ruling out talks with the regime.

The U-turn sparked howls of disapproval and allegations of treachery from within rebel blocs, despite the offer having caveats that, in practical terms, guaranteed Mr Al Assad would not agree to talks.

Rather than changing the no-negotiation policy, Mr Al Khatib has simply done what politicians do; sought to outmanoeuvre and embarrass his enemy.

It was a rare attempt at deft politics from an opposition that had previously seemed incapable off such basic strategy.

That proposal stirred the waters in an otherwise stagnant international diplomatic puddle and gave the opposition some momentum against Mr Al Assad, leaving it for his regime to reject the offer of talks - a timely reminder that the Syrian authorities have no intention of negotiating a transition of power.

The reason Mr Al Khatib did not tell his allies within the National Coalition in advance appears to have been simple; it would never have been agreed by factions that seem to delight in undermining one another almost as much as they delight in the prospect of overthrowing the Assads.

January's announcement was both an indicator of Mr Al Khatib's weakness but also his growing strength.

Weak because he was shown to be a president in whom his allies placed so little faith that he could not actually formulate even a cautious policy with them. He was exposed as a man who had to lead by isolated Facebook pronouncements.

Strong because he was bold enough to take such a controversial decision and survived the subsequent backbiting with his reputation as a committed revolutionary, and an honourable, honest man, intact.

His resignation may be a similar, albeit much higher stakes wager.

There seems little doubt his decision to quit, and the chaos that ensued, has in the short term bolstered the reputation of Syria's political opposition as woefully incompetent and self-obsessed, rather than potential leaders of the future focused on the well-being of their blighted nation.

Even among Mr Al Khatib's more fervent disciples there is anger and dismay over his resignation and its timing.

If his public explanations have come across as vague, so too have his more private reasonings. One loyal admirer described Mr Al Khatib as "secretive", saying "he didn't open up" when trying to explain his resignation in a discussion with a group of activists.

Yet the contours of a possible strategy might be forming, one that indicates Mr Al Khatib is developing the kind of sharp political acumen needed to survive the deceitful and dangerous world of revolutionary politics.

He told activists a major reason for his resignation was the intransigence of "old guard' figures within the opposition - a polite term for the Muslim Brotherhood and, perhaps, other ageing dissidents who have had little involvement with the grassroots uprising but who feel they are "owed" control over the revolt because of their long years of suffering.

"The Old Guard are controlling everything, they don't want to share power, they are not open for discussion and debate, they insist everything should be under their control," an activist described Mr Al Khatib as saying in response to questions about his resignation.

Mr Al Khatib had been working hard to get more grassroots factions represented in the coalition, some Islamists, some secular.

He had pushed for each battalion of the Free Syrian Army to send an attache to the council, according to people familiar with he effort; a move that would connect the leadership more directly with the armed groups, and make the fighters better represented at the decision-making table.

But that proposal could also threaten the power of the exiled opposition groups, central among them the Muslim Brotherhood, which remain heavily represented at a management level inside the National Coalition.

The 'Old Guard' thus blocked the move.

That, plus real annoyance at the West's broken promises of aid to the rebels, appear to have been critical in Mr Al Khatib saying enough is enough.

After he announced his resignation, two noteworthy things have happened. Firstly, the opposition has refused to accept his decision. Secondly, a series of activist groups and armed rebel factions have told Mr Al Khatib that, if he does quit the National Coalition, they will follow him.

Those facts suggest Mr Al Khatib is too important for the coalition to lose.

It is possible his resignation was a way of Mr Al Khatib calling the 'Old Guard's' bluff - a way of telling them "back me or sack me" - a gamble based on the calculation they need him, and the power of the street activists, more than he needs them.

Syrian opposition politics - so often a triumph of narrow-minded self-interest over sound logic - are complex and hard to fathom. But, if Mr Al Khatib was risking a bold move to break a damaging logjam, it may yet come off.

If it does he will have won himself a stronger mandate to push through with his plans and lead a more united and broader-based opposition.

If, however, it fails, that opposition seems set to continue its ugly bickering, as more blood spills in Syrian streets.

psands@thenational.ae

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