New Syrian coalition head speaks out

Article Summary
Khaled Khoja, who replaces Hadi al-Bahra as the top figure in the Syrian opposition, plans to reform the coalition from within before tackling the regime or the Islamic State.

The Syrian opposition has no choice but to give the Syrian National Coalition and its new president another chance. Though the organization has lost respect inside Syria, it is in close contact with the international community — which is incapable of ending the Syrian crisis — and it is recognized by many states as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Khaled Khoja is a new name, but he has become president of the coalition following Hadi al-Bahra, whose term went by in the blink of an eye without any positive development, and who was preceded in this position by Ahmad al-Jabra and Moaz al-Khatib. His appointment comes amid more confusion for the Syrian crisis, the territorial expansion of the Islamic State (IS) inside Syria and the discussion of “vague” talks in Moscow at the end of this month.

The three obstacles

The new president seems to realize completely where the disease in the body of the opposition is located: His agenda begins with reform inside the coalition and depends upon “consensus” rather than “majority rule.” He aims to restore respect for the coalition inside of Syria, and plans to take the initiative.

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Three issues face the coalition, Khoja tells An-Nahar: “The first obstacle concerns the [coalition’s] connection inside [Syria] and organizing the coalition’s ranks, especially given that the mosaic of people and sects reflected in the opposition, from the left to the right, from Turkmens to Kurds and from the Muslim Brotherhood to the leftists. These members began working according to a policy of stable democracy, causing the coalition to distance itself from the state of revolution, which demands consensus rather than majority rule.” He says, “The challenge in this obstacle is finding new mechanisms such as consensus rather than majority rule, so that the coalition is closer to the pulse of the revolution.”

The second obstacle is “reconsidering the coalition.” Khoja clarifies: “The distance of the coalition from the battlefield in Syria, and its inability to attract sufficient support from the international community’s Friends [of Syria] Group, has caused the coalition to be marginalized and considered as having its least importance since its founding. Therefore, there must be public relations with supporting states and communication channels must be found, both with the groups fighting on the ground and with activists, to know their needs, and to return the coalition to equilibrium.”

According to Khoja, overcoming these two obstacles will lead to victory over the third obstacle: “taking the initiative.” He argues: “The pressure on the Syrian people, and the suppression that the Syrian regime has engaged in with Russian-Iranian support, has created conditions that could reproduce the Syrian regime. The initiatives that emerged from the international community have imposed storms on the Syrian people, who are besieged in all regions and live under bombardment. Because the National Council, and later the coalition, adopted positions that were responses to these initiatives, we must now begin to take the lead. Therefore, we must improve the situation inside Syria and encourage the Syrian people to support the political initiatives that we undertake.”

The regime ‘dialogues’ with itself

The Moscow talks are considered very sensitive by the coalition, who was not invited, though some opposition figures were asked to attend. Khoja stops at this point to affirm that “dialogue with the regime is not likely. Between the coalition and the regime, there was a negotiation mechanism that was slowed by the regime at the Geneva II [conference]. If a relationship is resumed, it will be with the same negotiating relationship that ended with Geneva II, according to the six points of UN mediator Kofi Annan and the decisions of the Security Council, which require transferring authority to a transitional body with total executive authority. It is not possible to sit down with the regime in any initiative without this premise.”

He says that the “expression ‘dialogue’ is used for the relationship between the factions of the opposition, and this is ongoing, and will not be interrupted or require initiatives.” Offering the coalition's concluding position, Khoja says: “Moscow calls for dialogue, but we refuse and do not engage in dialogue. No invitation was sent to us [as the coalition] in the first place, but to individuals.” He adds, “If the discussions turn out to be within the frame through which Moscow thinks, the regime will find itself on the other side of the table and there will be no opposition present.”

The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra

How will IS be faced? Khoja answers, “The Free Syrian Army was the first to confront IS and expel it from Aleppo, where it was established. But unfortunately, countries supporting the revolution were slow to back the Free Syrian Army, whose restructuring made it grow in the north and reorganize in the south, despite the fall of Mosul and the gifts given by the Syrian regime to IS, such as airports and barracks in Raqqa. We now have a government emerging from the coalition and a Ministry of Defense, and there are training programs and support agreed upon by the US Congress. Because of this, IS will not be able to face the Free Syrian Army, which had prior experience in fighting it.”

As for Jabhat al-Nusra, this is the first time that the coalition articulated a clear position regarding the group. Khoja says, “The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Mohammed al-Golani, pledged loyalty to [al-Qaeda’s Ayman] al-Zawahri openly. This means that Nusra is connected to a terrorist organization, and it cannot break away from this characterization unless Golani breaks or reneges on his pledge.” Khoja says, “Nusra — because it is more local than IS (it has no foreign fighters), because some fighters chose to join it, and because it does not hold radical takfiri thought — has been coordinating with some groups on the ground against IS, since Nusra does not have a takfiri stance, except in limited areas. If Nusra continues along the same path, IS will eradicate it, and Golani has, in these circumstances, called for breaking the pledge to Zawahri and getting closer to the line of Syrian nationalist moderation.”

As for Lebanon, Khoja discusses the recent decision of the government to impose visas on Syrians who want to enter, saying: “Syrian migration to Lebanon has caused certain crises, and we understand this, but I believe that the responsibility rests with the international community, more than it does with the Lebanese government. The United Nations can find solutions for Syrian refugees by lifting the burden from the [Lebanese] government, and by classifying them as refugees under the care of the United Nations.” He expresses his disappointment: The United Nations has declared more than once its inability to provide food and medicine, despite the sufficiency of aid, especially the incredible amounts of money that it has received.”

Hisham Marwa

Hisham Marwa has been appointed to the position of vice president. He affirms to An-Nahar that the coalition’s new president “will complete the tasks and projects that the coalition previously worked on, will deal with political developments and will prepare for new challenges. Some of the most important files are: searching for an effective political solution, dealing with political initiatives, the government’s communication with the powers operating inside in liberated areas and feeding refugees.” He adds, “We are searching for a solution that breaks the block on the political possibilities, whether as negotiations and dialogue or as managing the situation inside [Syria].”

Marwa mentions the issues of “the return to Syria, the coalition and government’s foothold and advancing from liberated areas.” However, he says that the coalition would not be intimidated by the presence of “challenges to organization and on the ground, the guarantee of the required support for the government and the battalions and brigades facing despotism and terrorism.” He argues that “facing IS is meant to safeguard logistical support for Syrians and the Ministry of Defense, since whoever faces IS is expelled because of his inability to protect himself and meet his needs.”

Rehabilitating the regime

He is wary that the talks in Moscow might be “a gate for the rehabilitation of the regime,” noting that “the internal opposition has begun to deal with these talks as though they lacked seriousness.” He says, “If the talks in Moscow were merely meetings between opposition delegations, then the opposition would be able to meet in Cairo or Istanbul or anywhere. Therefore there is no use for talks in Moscow, especially since there is no real desire for a solution.”

He says: “There is no problem with dialogue among the opposition, and there is no problem with negotiating with the regime, but we do not see in the dialogue in Moscow any opportunity for a serious solution in Syria. Russia is not dealing with the revolution and its forces and entities, but with individuals. If Russia was able to release prisoners, stop the barrel bombs and convince the regime to adopt the Geneva I initiative, then we could go to Moscow, but anything else would be a jump into the void.”

Who is Khoja?

According to Shabkat Sham, “Khalid Khoja is the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He was born in Damascus in 1965, studied at the Uthman Thi al-Nourayn elementary school in 1977, and high school at the Jawdat al-Hashemi school in 1980 in Damascus. The regime arrested him twice during his studies — first in 1980, when he was arrested for four months, and second in 1981, for one year and three months.

"After his release, he traveled to Libya, and there he completed his secondary education in 1985, then moved to the University of Istanbul to study political science for two years. Afterward, he moved to the University of Izmir to major in medicine, graduating in 1994. He was the president of the administration body in the medical academic group, and was an investment, development and administrative adviser in the medical sector from 1994 until today. He was the founder and official of the committee for the Damascus Declaration Committee in Turkey, and a founding member of the Pulpit of Solidarity with the Syrian People.

"Khoja is regarded as one of the founders of the Syrian National Council, which was established on Oct. 2, 2011, and participated in the establishment of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the formation of which was announced in November 2012. He is currently a representative of the coalition in Turkey, and is close to the civilian and military popular mobilization. He is regarded as one of the founders of the project for Local Councils in Syria. He is married and has four children.”

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Found in: syria, opposition, national coalition of syrian revolutionary and opposition forces, moscow, geneva ii, bashar al-assad
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