Thursday, 31 January 2013

Syrian opposition chief stands in the line of fire

Moaz al-Khatib
Moaz al-Khatib is today facing calls to step down as head of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces over his “unilateral offer” to negotiate with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad.
The resignation calls come after the Syrian National Council (SNC), a key component of the National Coalition, openly challenged Khatib’s conditional proposal.
The overt controversy broke out soon after Khatib posted Tuesday a statement on his personal Facebook page saying he would “sit face to face with Syrian regime representatives in Cairo or Tunis or Istanbul.”
He made the talks offer conditional on the Damascus government first releasing 160,000 detainees and renewing or extending for two years all Syrian exiles’ passports. (See last night’s post, “War of words breaks out in Syrian opposition ranks.”)
“Speaking in a personal capacity does not change the fact Khatib heads the National Coalition,” says Anas al-Abdah, a member of the SNC and chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development in Syria.
He tells today’s edition of Saudi Arabia’s leading daily Asharq Alawsat, “[Khatib] should have resigned before broaching such a sensitive issue. As head of the National Coalition, he should have consulted its members first.
“By failing to do so as Coalition leader, he proved to be short of political and leadership maturity and lacking political experience…
“I urge him to reconsider his position as Coalition leader.”
The SNC’s Ibrahim Merei, whose London-based Barada TV has been focusing on issues of democracy, human rights, youth activism and civil society empowerment since April 2009, tells Asharq Alawsat:
“I stand by the revolutionary forces… Whoever represents them should preclude direct or indirect talks with the regime...
“Khatib’s remarks are a betrayal of the blood of people killed in Syria. I urge him to retract... If he is coming under international pressure, he can simply pull out.”
A third reaction comes from Obeida Faris, head of the Arab Foundation for Development and Citizenship (AFDC).
He tells the paper: “Syrians sacrificed over 60,000 martyrs, more than two million refugees and exiles as well as tens of thousands of detainees. This was not to win a loaf of bread or renew passports.
“Passports were denied to tens of thousands of Syrians for several decades. But that didn’t drive them to sit down with a bloodstained regime that committed more crimes than any other serial killer in history.
“I can understand the humanitarian pressure the National Coalition leader is coming under… But concessions need not exceed red lines set by the National Coalition.”
Faris was specifically referring to two provisions in the agreement that founded the National Coalition in Doha last November.
The two provisions are: “(1) The sides agree to bring down the regime and all its symbols and mainstays, to disband the regime’s security services and to call to account those responsible for crimes against Syrians, and (2) The Coalition commits not to engage in any dialogue or negotiation with the regime.” (See my November 11, 2012, post, “The Syrian opposition’s Doha agreement.”)
Editorially, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdelbari Atwan, today writes of “Khatib’s bombshell shattering the Syrian scene.”
Sheikh al-Khatib is neither ignorant nor naïve, says Atwan. He only aired his initiative after taking stock of information and facts gathered at two international conferences he attended this month. They are the January 9-10 meeting hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to galvanize international support for a Syrian-led transition to a stable democratic country and the January 28 “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris.
“He heard the opinions of both guests and hosts at the two venues. And the opinions simply dashed his hopes, chiefly as regards the supply of qualitative weapons to the opposition.”  
Atwan continues:
“Multiple reasons must have prompted Khatib to air his initiative, which could see him resign after coming in for a lot of shameless flak, or which could see a breakup of the Syrian opposition with the SNC choosing to opt out of the National Coalition.”
Atwan encapsulates the multiple reasons as follows:
1. The definitive rejection by the West -- chiefly the United States – of the idea of arming the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups coupled with an explicit warning to the Gulf States not to fund or arm the rebels.
2. Barack Obama’s upbeat proclamation in his second inaugural speech earlier this month that “a decade of war is now ending.”
3.  The Syria crisis stagnating after the regime’s failure to overcome the armed opposition and the latter’s inability to bring down the regime by force.
4. A misreading by the opposition’s Arab and other backers of the regime’s resilience and Russia and Iran’s unbounded support of Assad.
5. A rise in the clout of Jihadists on the ground, especially in northern Syria, and their success in recruiting thousands of young Syrians and in offering social welfare services in areas under their control, which is what the Taliban did earlier in Afghanistan.
6. The acquiescence of most Arab countries supportive of the armed opposition that a peaceful transition is the way out of the crisis. The consequence is acceptance of the regime – albeit for a short period – and opening the door of dialogue with it.
7. Mothballing of the Syria file by the Arab League and its foreign ministers.
“Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib grasps all that,” Atwan writes. “But, above all,  he realizes that the international community has started to address the Syria crisis as an issue of refugees, rather than the cause of a people seeking reform, democratic change and the removal of a dictatorship.
“The just-concluded conference in Kuwait of international donors for Syria, where more than a billion dollars were pledged for Syrian refugees, is proof of the new turnaround.
“The focusing on humanitarian and apolitical aspects by Arab and foreign countries under the sponsorship of the United Nations and its secretary-general evokes memories of a similar approach 65 years ago to the Palestine Question. That’s when the ‘Question’ became one of refugees deserving relief aid in their host countries…”