Optimism for new Syrian coalition’s support on the ground

November 16, 2012, Friday/ 16:44:00/ SİNEM CENGİZ

The election of an Islamic preacher as the leader of Syria's new opposition coalition and a Christian as the leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), one of the major organizations now under the new coalition, is expected to gain the support of opposition forces on the ground in Syria who have been fighting for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

After more than a week of meetings in Doha under intense international pressure, Syrian opposition groups signed an initial agreement on Sunday and established a new coalition through consensus called the Syrian Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and elected Islamic cleric Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib to head the new coalition.

“Khatib is a moderate Islamist. He has a good reputation all over Syria especially in Damascus. The youth trust and support him,” Fawaz Tello, a prominent dissident who resigned from the SNC last May, said in remarks to Today's Zaman.

“I have known him personally for many years. I was the one who introduced him to political life,” said Tello, a close friend of Khatib.

Khatib, who was once the preacher of Damascus' historic Ummayad Mosque, is known as a moderate who has called for political pluralism and strongly opposes sectarian divisions among Syrians.

Ali Bakeer, an expert at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), considers the two leaders the most appropriate figures to lead opposition groups in the current situation.

Echoing Tello, Bakeer said Khatib represents a moderate version of Islam and is a well-known figure. “Khatib's election was a very appropriate decision. He will be able to counter radical Islamist voices in Syria in the future,” Bakeer told Today's Zaman.

The election of Khatib, who has been detained several times since the uprising began on charges of supporting anti-regime groups, is considered to be a move to counter Muslim extremists who are gaining power among opposition groups.

Assessing the new opposition group for reporters, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that Khatib has taken several important roles as an activist in the Syrian civil movement.

Khatib was the not the only new face in Doha. Syria's main opposition group in exile, the SNC, also elected Christian activist George Sabra, a 65-year-old anti-Assad dissident, as its leader during the same gathering on Friday.

“Sabra is a good and respected man in Syria. Although he is a Christian and a communist, Sabra is respected by the Islamists as well. He was elected through consensus,” said Tello.

Sabra, a former communist, said his election as head of the SNC was proof that Syrians are not beholden to sectarianism. “The people here are Muslims, and they elected a Christian,” said Sabra. Sabra left Syria several months after the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and moved to Paris.

“I don't believe that Sabra is only representing Christians. Rather, he is working on a national agenda. Actually, Sabra has been expected in the leadership role since the election of Abdulbaset Seida,” said Bakeer.

Sabra replaced Seida, a representative of Syria's Kurdish community, garnering 28 out of 41 votes.

Tello also believes that Sabra's election was to counter Western concerns about the Islamist influence in the group.

“The members of the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] control [the SNC] without hiding their faces. After gaining considerable power in the SNC, they elected Sabra as the head to show to international community that the SNC is a moderate group. But this is not the truth,” said Tello.

Critics of the SNC had said it was overly influenced by the Sunni Islamist MB and not open enough to minority participation, including Alawites.

However, Bakeer believes that Sabra's election was a positive signal to both Syrians inside the country as well as to an international community with concerns over the group's Islamist leanings.

Sabra's election came on the heels of a crucial decision for the SNC, an Istanbul-based group, to join the umbrella coalition. The SNC had before been widely criticized by Western countries for not truly representing all segments of Syrian society.

In the Doha meeting, Sabra initially failed to win a place in the 41-member general secretariat, the body that chooses the president from its members, but then won a seat after a member resigned.

“The reason why he failed in the primary election is his weakness -- the same people who assigned him can take him from the office at any time,” said Tello.

It is still a question whether Sabra's election would rehabilitate the SNC in the eyes of the US, which announced that it no longer would recognize the group as the sole representative of the opposition, saying such a group should include greater representation from people fighting inside Syria.

Although the SNC has defied accusations of being Islamist-led by electing a Christian leader, Tello believes the group is still dominated by the MB.

“Now, the SNC has about 40 percent power in the new coalition,” added Tello.

It remains to be seen whether the new coalition will succeed in overcoming the in-fighting that has weakened the Syrian opposition.

When asked whether he believes that the opposition had in fact united in forming the new coalition, Tello replied: “Actually, the real opposition is not the people outside [of Syria]. After the new coalition's establishment, opposition groups became in some ways united. But the opposition wants to show that it is united to receive the support of the international community -- while in fact the international community is more divided than the opposition,” said Tello. 

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