DOHA (Reuters) - Could the head of Syria’s fractious opposition achieve the seemingly impossible - build a unified movement capable of toppling President Bashar al-Assad, without becoming beholden to foreign powers or a particular sect or ideology?
An assertive performance at an Arab summit in Qatar this week showed that independent-minded Moaz Alkhatib is prepared to take risks in pursuit of this goal, banking on populist rhetoric and his personal popularity inside Syria.
His plain speaking indicated he was not scared even of alienating the Arab states which fund his campaign.
The 53-year-old Sunni Muslim cleric from Damascus took Syria’s vacant seat at the Arab League summit on Tuesday, in a demonstration of Assad’s international isolation two years into a war that has cost an estimated 70,000 lives.
Responsibility for that moment of diplomatic theatre rests with the assembled Arab states, whose consent made it possible.
It was what Alkhatib did next that illustrated his high-stakes approach: he started by outlining a vision of a unified movement politically independent of the outside powers who fund much of the rebels’ humanitarian and military support.
“They ask who will rule Syria. The people of Syria will decide, not any other state in this world,” he said, apparently aiming his remarks at a Syrian domestic audience as much as an international one.
But Alkhatib then departed from diplomatic protocol, boldly urging Arab leaders to free their own political prisoners and join Syrians in breaking “a link of repression”.
Skeptics might question the wisdom of remarks that might antagonize Arab powers supportive of Alkhatib’s coalition, but the opposition leader’s admirers say he had little choice.
He lacks an organized power base, so must compensate by playing on his credibility at home, especially in Damascus, where he was formerly imam of the ancient Ummayad mosque.
Alkhatib is a political moderate, and is believed to look askance at the rising influence of hardline Islamists in the Qatari-backed umbrella group set up in Doha in November.
Many Syrians fear the rise of Islamists within the armed opposition, and Assad has made political capital by declaring that Syria’s real enemies are al Qaeda-style militants.
As a result, Syrian liberals argue, the opposition must do all it can to present an inclusive image and avoid a further descent into sectarianism. Saying there is only a military solution sends the wrong message, they say.
Alkhatib has shown an independent streak before. Earlier this year he dismayed colleagues by saying he would be ready to meet a senior government official if Assad met conditions such as freeing tens of thousands of political prisoners.
And on Sunday, Alkhatib jolted his associates again by announcing his resignation as head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, blaming the world’s failure to back the armed revolt. He told Reuters he was surprised by a cool Western response to his appeal at the summit for Patriot missile support for rebel-held northern areas.
Opposition sources said another significant motive for his resignation was disquiet about the preponderant role of Qatar, a strong ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, within the coalition.
“Moaz Alkhatib has legitimacy beyond the coalition, among the population, even among the population reluctant to change, because of his moderate speech and his peace initiative,” Samir Aita, editor-in-chief of the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, told Reuters.
“At the summit he showed that there is large interference from Qatar, and that this is unacceptable.”
The coalition was formed in Doha in November as an alternative to Assad, superseding the Syrian National Council, another umbrella opposition organization largely influenced by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood which now, along with its allies, is a dominant bloc in the coalition.
But the coalition, and a fledgling provisional government strongly backed by Qatar, still suffer from an image as foreign-backed exiles immersed in political wheeling and dealing.
For its part, Qatar dismisses allegations of partiality towards the Brotherhood and of warmongering.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of the summit Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said arming the rebels was not ideal but that there was little alternative.
“We have done all we could to find a peaceful solution,” he said. “Unfortunately this solution did not come because ... the regime was betting on a solution by force.”
Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, Alkhatib declined to be drawn on his next political moves, insisting that all he wanted was to build consensus among disparate opposition factions.
He cast his message in terms of Syria’s national interest, saying: “I say: ‘Don’t help the opposition. Think of helping the Syrian people’.”
Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Amman, Yara Bayoumy, Sami Aboudi and Regan Doherty in Doha; Editing by Alistair Lyon