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Syria Deeply Asks: Why Did Moaz al-Khatib Resign? What are the Implications?

As a regular feature, inspired by your questions about the Syria conflict, we’ve rounded up answers from some of the top minds in our network. If you’d like to submit a question for us to tackle send it to <[email protected]>.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

 Questions: Why Did Moaz al-Khatib Resign? What are the Implications?

Andrew Bowen, Scholar for the Middle East, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University:

Moaz al-Khatib was a unifying figure on the surface for the opposition. But while he was a universal figure, he also lacked the constituency of other groups within the Syrian national coalition, the more partisan groups.

As a result, as these differences started to emerge, he started to lose influence to more influential groups within, and the major break that started was there was still a sense that while Khatib believes now that a political negotiated settlement is really the only way forward, his secretary general was still believing in a military solution, which clearly the Qatari government has expressed its support.

As a result, while Khatib was trying to be this consensus-building figure to try and negotiate with the regime inside that coalition, differences started to emerge over future steps. And on key decisions such as negotiations with the regime and how to manage liberated areas of Syria, there were differences between Khatib and other members. Another factor was that Hitto was very much a Qatari-backed candidate, and clearly he was not Khatib’s choice. He was in a different position because he was sidelined on the vote and [interim prime minister Ghassam] Hitto’s first remarks were that he would not negotiate with the regime. So Khatib’s red lines, his principles, were crossed and as a result he resigned.

You had an opposition that had a charismatic figure to lead, and now you don’t have that leader. And it will be hard to find someone who can bridge those groups together, or a national coalition more partisan than under Khatib, so it will be much harder to have negotiations. Clearly you have a situation now where they lost their consensus figure, and you have the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups fighting over what the next steps are. The criticism was always that while [Khatib’s] coalition was broad umbrella, it was not a very strong umbrella. [The resignation] will make negotiations and settlements much harder.

Karim Bitar, analyst at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Paris:  

The situation of the Syrian opposition would be quite comical if the situation on the ground were not so tragic. This latest resignation is a result of a race between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It appears the nomination of Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister was orchestrated by Qatar, so his legitimacy has been questioned from the very beginning. Only 34 out of the 49 members elected him, and this was followed by series of resignations of high profile members.

Moaz al-Khatib said pretty clearly that he felt Qatar was intervening in domestic Syrian affairs in a heavy-handed way.  At the very same time, we have several leaders of the Free Syrian Army saying they do not feel represented by Ghassan Hitto. All this occurred the day the Arab Summit in Doha was supposed to give Syria’s seat to the opposition, and they found themselves even more confused because there was no one left to occupy the seat.

This makes the position of Western countries that want to support the rebels even more uncomfortable. They were already being criticized because they wanted to arm the rebels, and now their opposition is saying that we do not even know who is the leader.

It appears every foreign country is betting is betting on one or several Syrian opposition members. Qatar has its own protégés, Saudi Arabia has other protégés and so does Turkey. We now have internecine quarrels within the camp that is supposed to support rebels. All this confusion is providing fodder for Syrian regime propaganda. Today, Bashar al-Assad is probably laughing and enjoying the show.

Joshua Landis, author of the ‘Syria Comment’ blog and director of Oklahoma University’s Middle East Studies Center:

Moaz al-Khatib was squeezed out. The Muslim Brotherhood and this Mustafa Sabbagh Doha faction came together and voted for and elevated this Ghassan Hitto fellow to be prime minister of this interim government. And that meant that Khatib became a third wheel.

This is a replay of what happened in the Syrian National Coalition earlier. It is why the Syrian (National) Coalition was founded in the first place and the United States threw its weight behind it. And now, once again, the same forces have pushed aside more secular elements. That’s why we saw [Soheir] Atassi and [Walid] al-Bunni resign, or try to.

As this exiled opposition becomes less and less relevant, the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra are getting their act together. They are coming off of a big victory in Raqqa… and the Raqqa forces are now moving south along the desert highway towards Damascus. This is setting up a situation where an Islamist north, and particularly east, is moving downwards to liberate Damascus. Many Damascenes are terrified of this eventuality.

This tension between Damascus and the north was an undercurrent in the arm-wrestling that went on in the Syrian opposition coalition: Khatib made this effort to open dialogue in Damascus, and he was pushed into this by the US, Russia and Europe, which all wanted a political solution. The Muslim Brotherhood did not; they want to smash what is left of Baathist rule and the military. But they don’t mind seeing Damascus destroyed in this ultimate clash. People like Khatib don’t want Damascus destroyed and are willing to talk to the regime.

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