x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syria's opposition leader Moaz Al Khatib quits again

A frustrated Moaz Al Khatib quits as president of the Syrian National Coalition at a summit in Istanbul – for the second time in a month – and refuses food during the dinner meeting as he 'could see only the blood of Syrians'. Phil Sands reports from Istanbul

US secretary of state John Kerry, left, with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu during the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul.
US secretary of state John Kerry, left, with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu during the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // The Syrian rebels' political leader has resigned for a second time.

A frustrated Moaz Al Khatib quit as president of the Syrian National Coalition during the latest talks between the opposition and its main international backers, the Friends of Syria, at a summit in Istanbul.

"Moaz was disappointed and I think he doesn't see any reason to stay on and keep having these conferences - they're not getting us anywhere," said coalition member Habib Saleh.

Mr Al Khatib first quit last month but the SNC refused to accept his resignation.

"The [National Coalition] presidential council and the ministers of several countries were present at the dinner when I confirmed my final resignation," Mr Al Khatib said yesterday.

He also refused to to take any food during the dinner meeting, and said he could see only the blood of Syrians.

Another activist in the Turkish capital for the meetings said Mr Al Khatib would remain involved in opposition work, and remain a member of the SNC.

"He will keep working for the revolution and for the Syrian people, but he will not play in this political circus any more," he said.

The coalition had asked its international supporters to carry out strikes on regime military targets, especially ballistic missile sites and chemical weapons facilities, to safeguard the civilian population.

But hours of talks on Saturday produced a much more cautious increase in support for the rebels.

Speaking after the Friends of Syria meeting, which ran into the early hours of yesterday morning, the US secretary of state John Kerry said Washington would double its non-lethal aid to the rebels, raising it to US$250 million (Dh917.5m). Armoured cars, bulletproof vests, night-vision googles and communications equipment could be supplied under the programme.

More significantly, the coalition's international backers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the US, announced that all future aid would be channelled exclusively through the rebel Supreme Military Council, which commands the Free Syrian Army.

Secretive weapons supplies, cash and humanitarian aid flowing to the opposition - much coming from Riyadh and Doha, by way of Ankara - have until now been directed at different factions.

This has created increasingly powerful but uncoordinated private rebel armies inside Syria, often locked in a struggle for power with their supposed allies rather than uniting to focus on their common enemy, Bashar Al Assad's regime.

That lack of cohesion has also created a space for Islamist militants, among them the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, which has been gaining influence, and territory, much to the alarm of the international community.

Funnelling all aid through the FSA should give its moderate commanders a chance to cement their control over largely autonomous rebel units.

"In theory it's a good idea, I know people who have no interest in religion fighting for Islamist groups; they grow beards and pray just because that's what they have had to do to get the weapons they need from the Gulf," said an opposition munitions supplier.

However, he questioned the likelihood of international patrons actually giving up their own logistics channels.

"It is absurdly naive to think the Americans, the Qataris, the Saudis and everyone else will give up their direct connection to the armed groups they have built up inside Syria," he said.

Both the US and Europe appeared to be inching closer to arming rebel groups, something they have not done so far because of fears that advanced weaponry would fall into the hands of extremists and only add to the crisis.

Standing alongside Mr Al Khatib and the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr Kerry said there "would have to be further announcements about the kind of support" they would give the rebels in future, if the Syrian government failed to change course and seek a genuine political solution.

The German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, also in Istanbul, said yesterday that an EU arms embargo on the rebels might be lifted, under pressure from France and the UK. It is due to be discussed by EU foreign ministers in Luxemburg today.

Nonetheless, these declarations have fallen far short of the SNC requests, much to the irritation of Mr Al Khatib. He first resigned out of frustration both at bickering within the opposition and at the lack of decisive international intervention to help the rebels.

"Moaz is a good man and we know that he is not interested in grabbing or holding on to power, for that reason he is the best leader for us at the moment," said an opposition activist. "I have no idea who they will find to replace him as president of the SNC."

psands@thenational.ae

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