DOHA, Qatar — The Syrian political opposition is still suffering from competing regional influences, undermining its effectiveness, former opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib told Al-Monitor.
“The opposition faces a major problem … the regional and international powers are contributing to the opposition’s division,” the former head of the Syrian National Coalition said in an exclusive interview at the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum in Doha.
Khatib has previously cited foreign interference in the coalition, presumably from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as a reason for his resignation as president of the coalition in March 2013.
“Syria is currently placed under the pressure of regional powers, some are with the regime, and others are against it. These powers are struggling and pushing toward their own interests,” he told Al-Monitor.
Khatib blamed regional powers for the continuation of the war.
“Syria is an arena for a conflict that is greater than the regime and greater than the revolution, and the people are the ones paying the price,” he said.
Since leaving the coalition, Khatib has worked as an independent opposition figure, continuing to promote a Syrian dialogue, including with the regime, as a means to end the devastating war that has claimed over 160,000 lives.
“I am still calling for direct negotiations with the regime. … We shouldn’t wait for international conferences that are held every couple of months and that cost the Syrian people time and bloodshed. Negotiation is a principle rather than a tactical issue.”
Khatib also expressed willingness to hold talks with Iran, and a source at the forum in Doha told Al-Monitor a potential visit by the former opposition leader to Tehran was not out of the question.
Khatib said he is working with a “group of patriots to force the independent Syrian political decision through,” but that he is not presently involved in any initiatives with the Syrian National Coalition or the National Coordination Committee.
The former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus dismissed the recent presidential elections as “not genuine” and a delusion, adding that military gains by the regime will not remove the many problems it will face.
“No matter how much the regime prevails on the military level, the tragedy and problems are much bigger.”
Regarding the growing terror threat, most recently exacerbated by the major gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, Khatib said nations needed to address the roots of extremism, and not just look for quick fixes.
“Politicians often look for quick results, but the source of extremism needs in-depth examination. … Addressing terrorism is a long media and educational subject, and it is impossible to solve in a few days a problem that has unfolded over the course of decades.” he said.
Khatib was critical of states that have placed an emphasis on terrorism while relegating the significance of the war in Syria. “Some countries are more concerned with the length of the fighters’ beards than they are about the blood of innocent people and children.”
Khatib was seemingly referring to the United States, which has taken a cautious approach to supporting Syrian rebels for fear of advanced weapons falling into the hands of jihadists.
“The US administration ought to be cautious in its classifications. … If it classifies some groups as terrorists when they are not, then it drives them to become terrorists.”
Al-Monitor: Do you think the support for President Bashar al-Assad was genuine in the presidential elections, and is it possible for the opposition to regain momentum?
Khatib: The elections have been taking place the same way for 50 years in Syria, and the results are known to the Syrian people. They are not genuine and the regime is deluding. It is certain that the announced percentages would have changed a lot if the regime did not have control over the people. This is regarding the elections.
The opposition faces a major problem. It still consists of several parties, and the regional and international powers are contributing to the opposition’s division. Originally, it has suffered from internal weaknesses, as a result of 50 years of absence of any institution to conduct political actions, the brutal repression by the regime and the interference of regional and international parties, which have led to many problems.
Al-Monitor: Can you elaborate on this external involvement within the opposition. You were very critical of external forces influencing the opposition during your time as leader of the Syrian National Coalition. How do you see these external influences on the opposition today? Is it possible for a Syrian opposition movement that is not constrained by external influences to emerge?
Khatib: I am working with a group of patriots to force the independent Syrian political decision through. Syria is currently placed under the pressure of regional powers, some are with the regime and others are against it. These powers are struggling and pushing toward their own interests. At present, Syria is an arena for a conflict that is greater than the regime and greater than the revolution, and the people are the ones paying the price. We want to get out of this equation and break it to save our country from a darker and worse fate that we may be heading to, God forbid.
Al-Monitor: Are you still working with the Syrian opposition coalition, or the National Coordination Committee in Syria and Haytham Manna? What have been your initiatives since you left Etilaf?
Khatib: I am not affiliated with any political party, whether the coalition or the coordination committee. Of course, I have personal and national relations with them, which is normal. But, there are no political commitments toward either. I share my line of work, as you just heard, with other members. We are a group with no name. We aim at opening the road to Syrians. We do not care about the name, and we do not seek particular gains. If there are gains, nonetheless, we will be very happy.
Al-Monitor: When you were leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, you were for dialogue with the Syrian regime. Are you still an advocate for dialogue, and are you working with Syrian elements calling for dialogue?
Khatib: Yes, I do support these initiatives, and I am still calling for direct negotiations with the regime. I called for this when I was in Egypt a month ago. We shouldn’t wait for international conferences that are held every couple of months and that cost the Syrian people time and bloodshed. Negotiation is a principle rather than a tactical issue. Although I’m not a member of any political group, I am ready to cooperate with any side that is willing to.
Al-Monitor: Have you had any success? Have you spoken to anyone from the regime?
Khatib: Nothing direct, but what they published in their magazines and newspapers supports the idea [that they are willing to hold talks with us].
Al-Monitor: The Syrian regime is expressing a lot of confidence and has made some recent military gains. Is this war heading toward a victory for the regime?
Khatib: When the problem started, Assad said that there were some obstacles on the way, and that it was only a matter of days before things ended. The regime still has the same mentality. Sometimes, it achieves some gains, and other times, it loses. Whatever happens and no matter how much the regime prevails on the military level, the tragedy and problems are much bigger. They will not be over quickly until the regime decides to take the right steps and admit that it failed to manage the crisis, and that it is one of the main reasons behind the destruction of Syria.
Al-Monitor: How do you arrive at that point where you have the regime acknowledging that it needs to compromise? Are you speaking to the Iranians or Russians?
Khatib: The regime ought to acknowledge the truth to contribute to the solution. Its continuation exacerbates the problem. I called on all parties to negotiate and all parties concerned with the Syrian issue to find a solution. There is currently no direct communication with the Iranians, but there are no objections to this. I met with Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former foreign minister and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference, but due to various conditions these meetings failed to become more effective. Talks are necessary with all parties, and we cannot ignore any of the active actors. Open talks will hopefully build bridges to find a solution.
Al-Monitor: The major gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in Iraq have drawn global attention to the rising threat of terrorism from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. How to deal with the terrorist threat?
Khatib: I explained how to deal with the situation. It was said in Rome that some countries are more concerned with the length of the fighters’ beards than they are about the blood of innocent people and children. Extremism is a problem, of course, and we do not accept it. However, focusing on it is not enough. Politicians often look for quick results, but the source of extremism needs in-depth examination. This would really help in curbing, stopping and minimizing it. For its part, the US administration ought to be cautious in its classifications. Sometimes, it is affected by regional views and inaccurate information, and thus puts some groups in a very awkward position. If it classifies some groups as terrorists when they are not, then it drives them to become terrorists. Hence, the need for accuracy. Addressing terrorism is a long media and educational subject, and it is impossible to solve in a few days a problem that has unfolded over the course of decades.