MARRAKECH, Morocco (Reuters) - The Syrian people no longer need the intervention of international forces as rebels push towards the heart of the capital of Damascus to topple President Bashar al-Assad, the new leader of Syria’s opposition told Reuters.
Mouaz al-Khatib, the scion of a Damascene Muslim religious dynasty, said the opposition would consider proposals from Assad to surrender power and leave the country, but would not give any assurances until it saw a firm proposal.
Flanked by bodyguards, al-Khatib was speaking to Reuters on Wednesday night after a meeting of Western and Arab nations with the Syrian opposition in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
“The horrific conditions which the Syrian people endured prompted them to call on the international community for military intervention at various times”, al-Khatib said.
“Now the Syrian people have nothing to lose. They handled their problems by themselves. They no longer need international forces to protect them. The international community has been in a slumber, silent and late (to react) as it saw the Syrian people bleeding and their children killed for the past 20 months,” the eloquent, soft-spoken opposition leader said.
On Assad, he said: “I only hope that he knows that he has no role in Syria or in the lives of the Syrian people. The best thing is that he steps down and stops drinking the blood of the Syrian people.”
Al-Khatib blamed world and regional powers for the rise of radical Islam in Syria, which has long prided itself on being a tolerant mosaic of ethnic groups. He said the world’s failure to stop Assad’s forces from killing peaceful protesters at the beginning of Syria’s revolt in March 2011 was the root cause.
“The international community is partly responsible for the emergence of some disturbing phenomena because of its negligence towards peoples and nations,” said al-Khatib, who was elected as president of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces last month.
“When a whole people endure killing for 20 months, then groups emerge with radical or extremist views.”
“USING THEIR BARE KNUCKLES”
At the Marrakech Friends of Syria conference, 114 countries, including the United States and the 27 states of the European Union, recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, signaling that more than four decades of Assad family rule over Syria might be nearing an end.
With fighting raging in the capital not far from Assad’s palace and rebels rapidly gaining ground across the country, al-Khatib said a negotiated exit for Assad may still be possible.
A mainstream Muslim preacher from a family that have long been the custodians of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, one of the holiest places of Islam, al-Khatib is widely respected across Syria’s different religious communities.
He first made his mark in the earliest days of the revolt, telling mourners at the funeral of protesters shot by Assad’s forces that freedom was a natural right.
The 52-year-old bearded former imam, who studied geophysics and has worked as an oil company geologist, was banned from preaching for 17 years and imprisoned several times after the speech. He is now based in Cairo.
Al-Khatib said that even if big powers did not supply fighters pushing into Damascus with heavy weapons to counter Assad’s superior firepower, the rebels would still win.
“There are promises of military help but, God willing, the Syrian people will uproot this regime even using their bare knuckles,” al-Khatib said.
“The Syrian people started (their revolt) in a simple way, and stood fast not only in the face of the barbaric regime ... but also in the face of big powers that support the regime,” he said, referring to Russia, China and Iran, which back Assad.
Moscow has deplored recognition of the Syrian National Coalition by the United States and its allies, saying it ran “against agreements to seek political transition in the Middle East”.
“RUSSIANS HAVE WOKEN UP”
But the Kremlin’s special Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said on Thursday the rebels might win in Syria and that Assad’s government was “losing control of more and more territory” - the first such acknowledgement by a major backer of Assad.
Singling out Moscow, al-Khatib said: “I believe that the Russians have woken up and are sensing that they have implicated themselves with this regime, but they don’t know how to get out.” The opposition now hopes that Russia will see sense “so that it won’t lose everything totally (with the Syrian people)”.
“The noose is tightening around the regime, (but) the regime still has power. People think that the regime is finished, but it still has power left, but it is demoralized and however long it lasted its end is clear,” al-Khatib said.
The opposition chief said the anti-Assad coalition was working to set up the political institutions needed for a post-Assad era, including the creation of a broad-based transitional government, but did not give specifics.
He outlined three scenarios under which Assad could fall.
Under the first, Assad would choose to fight on until the end. “The second option is that something happens inside the regime itself, either a rift or a change from within, and this could save (us from) more bloodshed.”
The third option foresees a negotiated exit. “When the regime decides very clearly to leave, then we can discuss the mechanism of transition,” he added.
“If Bashar wants (to leave) he could through certain channels send a clear and strong message ... that he has a certain idea that could be discussed. Some international mediators from the U.N. or others could listen to them, but we will not commit until we study it.”
The opposition chief confirmed Western reports that loyalist forces had started to use Scud ballistic missiles in northern Syria and said he would hold Russia “particularly responsible” because it was still helping Assad.
He warned that Assad could still resort to using his stocks of chemical weapons, even though this would trigger international pressure and cost the Syrian president dearly.
Al-Khatib ruled out a Russian proposal suggesting Assad hand over power to a transitional government while remaining president, saying it was “disgraceful for a slaughtered nation to accept to have a killer and criminal at its head”.
He welcomed the international recognition bestowed on the Syrian opposition in Marrakech. But he called on the United States to reconsider a decision to designate one group in the opposition coalition, the Jabhat al-Nusra grouping of Islamist rebels, as a terrorist organization.
“We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision,” he said in a speech on Wednesday. “But we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.”
The National Coalition leader was invited on Wednesday to visit the United States. He said he would accept, though prior commitments prevented him travelling in the immediate future.
Writing by Samia Nakhoul, editing by Michael Stott