The head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, has resigned for the second and last time from his post. It happened hours after a disappointing meeting by 11 foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria group, which met in Istanbul [on April 20]. The Syrian opposition provided all the guarantees it could in order to procure weapons for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and form a coalition of countries that would conduct drone strikes on regime missile launch sites, impose a no-fly zone and protect the northern and southern border to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees. The conferees, however, offered only “non-lethal equipment” and urged the opposition to negotiate with the regime.
It is not clear whether it was that setback that prompted Khatib to resign, as he said in an email to coalition members. He waited for the Istanbul meeting to end and then announced his resignation on his Facebook page, 25 days before his term as coalition head was set to expire.
After the Istanbul meeting and during the press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, Khatib seemed to have lost hope that the Syrian opposition would overcome its impasse with regard to its political choices, the issue of negotiating with the Syrian regime, its internal differences with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, and the independence of its decision making and the lack of Western — specifically American — support for the opposition’s objective of arming the FSA, something which would change the balance of power.
The second Istanbul document, which Kerry mentioned, announced that the Friends of Syria group supports negotiating with the Syrian regime within the framework of the Geneva Accord and warned the Syrian regime that it is its “last chance and if the regime rejects it, the Friends of Syria group will step up aid to the opposition,” something that in Khatib’s opinion would prolong the war and Syria’s systematic destruction.
Kerry characterized the Syrian opposition’s political document as “important” for providing guarantees for Syria’s minorities, supporting pluralism, renouncing terrorism and pledging not to allow chemical weapons to fall into the wrong hands. But Kerry’s positive characterization did not change the US position against arming the opposition nor the US position that the opposition’s guarantees that those arms would not reach terrorists are inadequate, as revealed by military and political assessments in Congress last week. Kerry raised US “non-lethal assistance” by $123 million, on top of the $100 million that the United States has already provided.
The Russians joined the Istanbul meeting by telephone because the Friends of Syria renewed its commitment to the Geneva Accord. Immediately after the meeting, Kerry called and briefed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia had previously criticized the Friends of Syria's “negative role.”
More than at any other time, Khatib seemed alone in his position. In an internal message to coalition members, he said that he had intended to resign after he left Istanbul for Cairo but that “someone leaked the news, so I am announcing my resignation now. But I shall remain in the National Coalition as a representative of Damascus province.” He did not explain why he had chosen to resign.
It is clear that the dispute with the Qataris and the Muslim Brotherhood, which imposed Ghassan Hitto as the “head of the interim government” and which dominate the National Coalition, pushed Khatib into resigning from a post where he had become a mere figurehead that harmed his national and popular legitimacy in the Syrian street and provided cover for decisions that enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate the Syrian opposition under the auspices of Qatar and Turkey.
A few days before the Istanbul meeting, Khatib, who does not have a large bloc in the coalition, had started a Facebook campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and the satellite TV channels that support them. Khatib resigned because he refused to be a “false witness.” He said, “The caged bird is trapped and helpless, and yesterday I came out of my golden cage.”
He resigned despite media leaks that there was an agreement with Davutoglu that Khatib would stay on as the coalition’s leader for an additional six months in return for giving the FSA more representation in the coalition, giving the Syrian military council more say in the formation of the government and allowing 25 members from the civilian committees into the coalition.
A National Coalition member said that the same proposal was adopted by 12 coalition members who do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood nor are close to Mustafa al-Sabbagh’s bloc, which is close to Qatar. But the proposal did not receive wide support. Rather, the Muslim Brotherhood offered four seats instead of 25. But that would not change anything in the balance of power, which strongly tilts in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. The Muslim Brotherhood and Sabbagh control a “voting” force of more than 40 out of 66 active members, according to a coalition member.
Also according to a National Coalition member, the coalition presidency will go to Riad Seif, one of the two vice presidents, when elections are held in the second half of May. But if Seif refuses the job for health reasons, the post will go to either Suheir al-Atassi or Sabbagh.
According to a Syrian opposition member, Khatib’s choosing to remain in the coalition as representative of Damascus is preventing the necessary shakeup in the opposition between a current that supports a political solution and another one that is betting only on a military solution.
The coalition may have suffered a great setback with Khatib’s exit by losing one of the opposition’s most credible figures in Syria and internationally. This is the second setback for the Syrian opposition. The first was the experience of the Syrian National Council (SNC). The SNC failed because the Muslim Brotherhood tried to monopolize it and impose its political choices on it.
As a result of Khatib’s resignation, the group that froze its coalition membership will have to decide whether to stay in or leave. Those who froze their membership after Hitto was appointed head of an interim government are not a homogenous group. They are Kamal al-Labwani, Rima Fleihan, Suhair al-Atassi (she reversed her resignation a few hours later), Marwan Hijo, Yehya ak-Kurdi, Mohammed al-Assi Gerba, Walid al-Bunni, Burhan Ghalioun, Okab Yehya, Harith al-Nabhan and Ziad Abu Hamdan.