The head of Syria’s main opposition group resigned on Sunday, weakening the moderate wing of the two-year revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and complicating Western efforts to back the rebels.
The resignation of Moaz Alkhatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who had offered al-Assad a negotiated exit, could make the West more cautious in supporting the revolt. Alkhatib was seen as a moderate bulwark against the rising influence of al-Qaeda linked jihadist forces.
Alkhatib was picked to head the Western and Gulf-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was formed in Qatar in November last year.
His resignation is seen as having been to some degree caused by Qatar, the main backer of his political foes in the coalition, and the country spearheading Arab support for the revolt as its geopolitical ramifications deepen.
The conflict pits Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority against al- Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has controlled the country for almost five decades, deepening the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East and raising tension between Gulf states and Iran.
Asked to comment on Alkhatib’s resignation, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Doha: “We are very sorry for this, and I hope he reviews his resignation.”
Alkhatib quit after the coalition berated him for offering al-Assad a deal and after the group went ahead, despite his objections, with steps to form a provisional government that would have further diminished his authority.
“I had promised the great Syrian people and promised God that I would resign if matters reached some red lines,” Alkhatib said in a statement on his official Facebook page, without explaining exactly what had prompted his resignation.
“Now I am fulfilling my promise and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition in order to be able to work with freedom that cannot be available within the official institutions,” he said.
Last week, the coalition chose Islamist-leaning technocrat Ghassan Hitto as a provisional prime minister to form a government to fill a power vacuum in Syria arising from the revolt.
The appointment of Hitto prompted nine people to suspend their membership in the 62-member body, saying that promises to reform the coalition and respect consensus have been discarded.
Earlier this year, Alkhatib floated an initiative for the opposition to talk to al-Assad’s administration about a political transition, but said the Damascus government did not respond.
Moaz al-Shami, a leading activist in Damascus, said Alkhatib’s resignation deprived the coalition, which consists mostly of exiles, of the figure best-known inside Syria, but that Alkhatib still could still play a major role in the revolt.
Alkhatib announced yesterday said he would address an Arab League meeting in Qatar this week despite his resignation, but did not say when he would speak
“I have decided to give a speech in the name of the Syrian people at the Doha conference,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
“This is a matter that has nothing to do with the resignation, which will be discussed later,” he said.
The summit takes place today and tomorrow and the opposition will take over Syria’s vacant seat at the league, a high-ranking league official said yesterday.
“The opposition has been invited to the Arab summit and will occupy Syria’s seat at the Arab League,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Additional reporting by AFP