Bashar al-Assad, it sometimes seems, is lucky in his enemies. Controversy and bitter recriminations have been raging in their ranks since the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition (SOC), Moaz al-Khatib, dropped a bombshell by offering talks with Assad’s vice-president, Farouq al-Sharaa.
And now confirmation that the White House vetoed Pentagon plans to arm the anti-Assad rebels has underlined just how hard it has been for them to translate political support from the west into practical assistance to achieve victory.
Khatib said he would negotiate with Sharaa if 160,000 prisoners were freed and passports issued for Syrians abroad. But outrage erupted because the SOC’s charter states that it will not talk to the regime – except about its departure. Khatib retorted that he was expressing a personal view, but then met the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers.
Now, after a flurry of tense consultations, Khatib and colleagues will meet in Cairo this weekend – with the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi – for an emergency session to clarify the position.
Others hailed last week’s initiative as reflecting the wishes of Syrians desperate to end a war that has killed 60,000 people. Activists of some of the Local Co-ordination Committees have given their qualified support. So has a commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“Khatib’s offer of talks with Assad helped undermine the terrible fear of many that this struggle is existential and will continue until one side has eliminated the other,” wrote Joshua Landis on the Syria Comment blog. “To many Syrians who feel that they are mere pawns caught between two clashing giants … [it] provided some hope of a kinder and saner future.”
Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus, was supposed to usher in an era of unity when he became SOC president in November. The fractious Syrian National Council (SNC) was subsumed into the new body. Its performance was said by the western governments calling for Assad to go to have become more businesslike.
But the SOC is still divided into camps, like the SNC before it. “This initiative has taken us back to square one after all the efforts we made to convince the international community that the opposition was united,” complained one activist. “It was handled completely unprofessionally. It was a wasted opportunity.”
Kamal Labwani, an independent, warned of “betrayal” and a “fifth column” inside the opposition. “The regime understands only the language of force,” he protested. But George Sabra of the SNC – the largest component of the SOC – was more nuanced: he first rejected the initiative but then softened his position, calling for unity and support for the FSA as fighters made new but probably temporary gains on the outskirts of Damascus this week.
Khatib, described as charismatic but a bad listener, is said to dislike foreign-based activists and intellectuals he considers out of touch – disparagingly known as “hotel warriors”. Based in Cairo with his own loyal team, he has the support of powerful businessmen from Damascus who are alarmed by the rise of Islamist and jihadi groups in the armed opposition.
“People have criticised Khatib for naivety but there are forces telling him that this is the way to go,” said commentator Malik al-Abdeh. “They tell him that if this carries on then everything they have achieved will come crashing down because of the backwoods fighters of the FSA and the jihadis who will destroy Damascus as they have large parts of Aleppo.”
Others warn that Khatib’s leadership, and that of the SOC, remains far more dependent on external recognition than any internal legitimacy.
The US, Britain and the EU gave Khatib’s initiative a cautious welcome while insisting Assad must be held accountable for his crimes – a position that is unlikely to persuade him to step down voluntarily. Only Turkey publicly rejected it.
“We are positive but it would be useful to tie it into other diplomatic efforts,” said one western official. Hopes are focusing on Khatib’s visit to Moscow next month – and for a shift in Russia’s stubbornly pro-Assad position at the UN.
Still, some opposition figures fear foreign pressure to cut a deal. “Lots of friendly countries or those who claim friendship for the Syrian people were waiting for this exact kind of initiative to justify their failure to deliver on military support for the revolt and the protection of civilians,” warned Burhan Ghalioun, a former SNC president.
In one sense the whole dispute is a theoretical one since the official Syrian media dismissed Khatib’s offer as “political manoeuvring” while Assad himself has said nothing. It still looks as if fighting, not impassioned debates and diplomatic initiatives launched in foreign capitals, will decide the course of this war as it nears its grim second anniversary.
Culled from Middle East Forum