Syrian Opposition Leader Quits Post
Syrian Opposition Leader Quits Post
By ANNE BARNARD and HALA DROUBI
Published: March 24, 2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon – The president of the main Syrian exile opposition group, who had pushed for political talks between the Syrian government and its armed opponents, resigned on Sunday, days after the coalition elected an interim prime minister who rejects such dialogue.
“They support whomever is ready to obey, and the one who refuses has to face starvation and siege,” Mr. Khatib said in his statement. “We will not beg to satisfy anyone, and if there is a decision to execute us as Syrians, so let it be.”
It was not clear which of the opposition’s many frustrations Mr. Khatib, often cryptic in his public statements, was referring to — the reluctance of Western countries to send arms to rebels for fear they will fall into the hands of extremist fighters, meddling by the uprising’s foreign supporters in the choice of a prime minister, or both.
His resignation appeared to be an at least short-term blow to prospects for a political solution to the conflict. And it underscored the challenges the opposition coalition still faces in establishing legitimacy and effective leadership, four months after dozens of countries recognized it as the legitimate representative of Syrians.
Mr. Khatib, a prominent imam who had preached at the revered Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and sided early on with the revolution, had drawn criticism from some in the coalition for being willing to talk with some members of Mr. Assad’s government. But others saw him as a moderate who was ideally suited to reach out to Damascus residents who support the government or fear the rebels, and he had begun to build respect among some fighters inside Syria.
Last week, the coalition, divided and under pressure to choose a temporary leader to try to administer rebel-held areas, selected a relatively unknown Syrian-born Texas businessman, Ghassan Hitto, as prime minister.
Mr. Hitto quickly made clear that he sees no room for dialogue with anyone in the government, after a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.
“The regime missed the most valuable opportunities to implement national comprehensive reconciliation,” Mr. Khatib said in his statement.
Mr. Khatib projected an earnest, unpolished persona and never fit the profile of a politician, sometimes failing to build support for controversial moves before announcing them and then posting mournful statements on Facebook about how he had been misunderstood. Some coalition members and anti-government activists in Syria said they wished he had stayed in office to push back against the foreign interference he spoke of, rather than resigning abruptly and emotionally.
A coalition member familiar with Mr. Khatib’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive matters, said Mr. Khatib resigned over interference from Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Syrian uprising.
The member said that Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off funding and split the coalition if it did not select its favored candidate for prime minister, Assad Mustafa, who had promised to appoint a Saudi favorite as defense minister. That, the member said, enraged members, who then hastily settled on Mr. Hitto, who was backed by Qatar and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Another member, Mustafa Sabagh, who is close to the Saudi government, denied the Saudis had interfered and said he believed Mr. Khatib resigned over the many conditions Western countries had placed on aid to the uprising.
Mr. Hitto was elected with a large majority, but some members complained about the process, and the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for many of the rebel battalions, said on Saturday that it rejected him because he was not a consensus choice.
“We in the Free Syrian Army do not recognize Ghassan Hitto as prime minister because the National Coalition did not reach a consensus,” Louay Mekdad, the Free Syrian Army’s media and political coordinator, said, raising further questions about the interim government’s ability to establish authority.
Mr. Khatib promised to keep working for Syria outside official channels. “The door to freedom has opened and won’t close,” he said, “not just in the face of Syrians but in the face of all peoples.”
Some read that remark as a possible dig at Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that support the Syrian uprising but keep a tight political clampdown on their own citizens – but given Mr. Khatib’s oblique style, it was hard to tell.
The turmoil in the opposition came as the Israeli military said it hit a Syrian position after two Israeli patrols came under fire from across the decades-old Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, adding to fears that the Syrian conflict will spill over its borders.
Israel’s newly appointed defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, warned in a statement that “Any violation of Israeli sovereignty and fire from the Syrian side will be answered with the silencing of the source of fire,” adding, “The Syrian regime is responsible for every breach of sovereignty. We will not allow the Syrian army or any other groups to violate Israel’s sovereignty in any way.”
Israel captured part of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 war and has since effectively annexed it in a move that has not been internationally recognized.
The military said that two military patrols came under fire from the Syrian side on Saturday night and Sunday morning, escaping without injury. Israeli forces fired back at the source, a machine gun position, destroying it, according to the military.
The military did not specify whether the Syrian position belonged to Syrian government forces or rebels. Rebels in recent days have expanded their grip on the area and control several miles along the boundary after overrunning a military base on Saturday.