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Leaders of Syrian Opposition: Moaz al-Khatib

Leader of the Syrian National Coalition

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Moaz al-Khatib is the leader of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, the alliance of Syria’s main opposition groups fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Launched in November 2012, the National Coalition (NC) faces the crucial task of unifying the Syria’s fragmented opposition and forming an interim government capable of running the country after Assad’s downfall.

Moderate Islamic Preacher

Khatib is a moderate Islamic preacher, known for a liberal approach to religion, rejection of sectarianism and a track-record of campaigning for political freedoms in Syria. Born in 1960 in the capital Damascus, Khatib is a scion of a prominent Sunni Muslim family. He trained as a geologist and worked for the state oil company, before deciding to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a full-time religious scholar.

You can see follow some of Khatib’s thinking on his website, http://www.darbuna.net/en/. Most notably, he writes that “women and men are equal in terms of humanity”, and he places general liberties such as freeing political prisoners and abandonment of totalitarian politics at the “core of Islam”.

Opposition to the Regime

Khatib was elevated into a public figure after becoming the imam at the famous Omayyad Mosque in Damascus in the early 1990s, but his sermons soon caught up the attention of the security services. After being banned from preaching by the state, Khatib worked in Damascus in various institutes for research on Islamic thought.

Khatib was among the hundreds of intellectuals who in 2005 petitioned Bashar al-Assad for political reform (“Damascus Declaration”), and in 2011 joined the Syrian Uprising against Assad’s rule. A distinguished orator at opposition rallies, Khatib was imprisoned and finally fled Syria to Egypt in Summer 2012.

Why Mouaz al-Khatib Matters

Khatib was chosen as president of the National Coalition as a potential unifying figure. History of defiance of the regime gives him a seal of approval in the eyes of other opposition groups, wary of government officials who only deserted the regime once the uprising began. His religious background and family pedigree generate positively among ordinary families in Syria’s majority Sunni community.

At the same time, his moderate religious message may assuage the fears of Syria’s Christians and Muslim minorities, such as the Alawites, that Assad’s secular dictatorship will be replaced with an equally repressive Islamist republic. Upon assuming the presidency of the NC, Khatib said: “We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawite, Ismaili (Shia), Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people”.

Moreover, Khatib has no history of affiliation with political parties or ideological currents, but rather the appeal and the charisma of a national figure. This is precisely what was lacking in the squabbling leaders of the Syrian National Council – a diverse opposition alliance that failed to win popular support and joined the NC under Khatib’s presidency.

Khatib’s Limitations

Khatib’s main weakness is the lack of political experience. He is well respected, but without a political base (and money) of his own he may find it difficult to navigate the maze of Syrian’s opposition politics. He will have to balance groups with different foreign backers, contrasting visions of post-Assad’s future, and beset with intense personal rivalries.

Khatib became a leader of a fragile alliance with little common strategy, whose members continue to act independently. Above all, he has no chance of subduing hundreds of armed groups from the Free Syrian Army under a single opposition command without securing the funding and supply of heavy weapons from the Gulf Arab states and the West - and in turn possibly compromising his own independence.

Khatib’s real powers are limited, but his potential to inspire the leader-less opposition is perhaps without parallel. Failure to do so might fatally damage any chance of a united front against Assad’s regime.

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