x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syria's new opposition 'must bring armed groups under control'

The newly formed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) will now seek recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people on the international stage to further isolate the government of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.

Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib, left, a moderate who quit Syria three months ago, chats with outgoing National Syrian Council chief Abdulbaset Saida during the meeting to form Syria’s new opposition.
Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib, left, a moderate who quit Syria three months ago, chats with outgoing National Syrian Council chief Abdulbaset Saida during the meeting to form Syria’s new opposition.

ISTANBUL // Moaz Al Khatib, the leader of a newly formed umbrella group representing the Syrian opposition, is under pressure to show that the dissident body has the credibility to speak for a majority of Syrians and to bring armed groups under some form of political control, analysts said yesterday.

If Mr Al Khatib succeeds, the opposition will find it easier to attract funds and get access to arms by foreign supporters, they said. But some expressed doubts whether the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, chaired by Mr Al Khatib, will have the clout to rein in local militias fighting in Syria.

Mr Al Khatib, 52, was picked as leader at the end of a week-long opposition conference in Doha on Sunday, with prominent dissident Riad Seif and female opposition figure Suhair Al Atassi chosen as his deputies.

The meeting saw the integration of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition bloc made up by exiles widely criticised for excluding minorities such as Kurds and on-the-ground groups, into a wider assembly of 55 to 60 members.

The newly formed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) will now seek recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people on the international stage to further isolate the government of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president. More than 30,000 people have died in clashes since the start of the uprising against Mr Al Assad in March 2011.

Mr Al Khatib was expected in Cairo yesterday for talks with Arab League foreign ministers and Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy for Syria. He was accompanying Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani to the talks.

"We will seek a full recognition of this new body," Sheikh Hamad said. Key western countries, including the US, the United Kingdom and Turkey, welcomed the creation of the new opposition body.

As Mr Al Khatib prepared for the Cairo talks, an opposition activist yesterday denied reports describing him as a moderate Islamist.

Bassam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador and leading opposition figure who knows Mr Al Khatib personally, said Mr Al Khatib was trained as a geologist and worked at Syria's state oil company. In continuation of a family tradition, he also filled a position as an imam at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus.

"He is a Muslim, but not an Islamist," Mr Imadi said. "His education was more scientific than religious."

Mr Imadi said Mr Al Khatib was frequently harassed by Syria's intelligence service because of his work at the Damascus mosque. He said Mr Al Khatib left Syria this summer because of the pressure by the Al Assad government.

Molham Aldrobi, a leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, described Mr Al Khatib as a man with "an open-minded mentality and a broad knowledge".

An important task of Mr Al Khatib will be to convince the international community that the new group is an efficient and independent organisation, analysts said, especially as the Doha meeting followed a public call by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, for a new format for the Syrian opposition.

"Some circles in the Arab world will see this completely as an American puppet," said Sami Kohen, a foreign policy columnist at the Milliyet daily in Istanbul. He added that Turkey, a key sponsor of the SNC, had been surprised and disappointed by Mrs Clinton's statement last month.

Mr Imadi, the former ambassador, insisted that work on the new opposition format had started two or three months before Mrs Clinton spoke but conceded that the initiative had received a "strong push" by her words.

As Mrs Clinton and other western backers of the opposition had become increasingly frustrated with the constant infighting within the SNC in recent months, the first order of the day for Mr Al Khatib was to show that things had changed, Mr Kohen said.

After the expressions of unity made by opposition groups in Doha, the key question for the new Syrian National Coalition was "whether this will be doable, whether unity can be sustained", he said.

If foreign backers get the impression that there is progress as compared to the old era, aid and weapons will flow more freely to the opposition, Mr Kohen said, adding the United States would probably be reluctant to get involved directly and ask partners in the region to facilitate possible arms shipments. "It will be easier for them to get weapons, provided they prove that they are united," he said.

This is why moves by the new group will be closely watched. Mr Imadi said the Doha agreement said that all important decisions had to be taken with a two-thirds majority, a fact that could make life difficult for Mr Al Khatib. "The chairman does not have so much power," he said.

Opposition figures have been saying for months that a shortage of funds and modern arms to fight Mr Al Assad's government troops are holding back efforts to push the Syrian president from power.

Mehmet Sahin, a Middle East specialist at Ankara's Gazi University, agreed that the broader-based group led by Mr Al Khatib was likely to find it easier to acquire weapons. But he said he doubted whether the new organisation would be able to take local militias in Syria under its control and stop the increasing influence of radical Islamist groups on the ground in Syria.

Even though the real reason for the US to step in had been concern about the growing power of extremist groups in Syria, Mr Al Khatib's coalition was unlikely to do much about it, Mr Sahin said.

"Militias are doing in their region what their commander tells them to do," he said. "That kind of chaos will continue until after Assad is deposed."

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse