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Syrian Opposition Unites Under New Group

Adam Lucente

Representatives of Syrian opposition groups — including rebel fighters, veteran dissidents, and ethnic and religious minorities — came together in Qatar on Sunday and agreed to join a new coalition that hopes to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Officially called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, or simply the Syrian National Coalition, this new group will subsume the ineffective Syrian National Council (SNC) and form a government-in-exile.

After forming, the Coalition took its first step Sunday and elected Mouaz al-Khatib as its president. Al-Khatib, a former engineer and imam at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, is considered by some to be a moderate Islamist. He is known for preaching Syrian unity and for warning of the dangers of sectarianism in Syria’s revolution. In an interview that aired Tuesday on Al-Jazeera, al-Khatib said he supports a tolerant, Islamic state in Syria where all citizens — secular and religious — are respected. The new leader has also stressed that he seeks weapons from foreign countries, but not foreign military intervention.

Mouaz al-Khatib (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)

The Coalition represents the first unified Syrian opposition group since the start of the uprising. The SNC was largely criticized by many, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for not representing the diverse rebel groups and failing to unify all elements of the opposition, leading Clinton and others to urge the creation of a new group that would be easier to assist. In addition to including members of the Syrian National Council in its assembly — the SNC will hold up to 22 out of some 60 seats — representatives of minorities such as Kurds, Christians, Alawites, and women will hold seats in the assembly. Leftist and Muslim Brotherhood candidates are also expected to gain seats.

The new Coalition will also create a military council that includes the Free Syrian Army. That council will perhaps be tasked with the most difficult job: taking command over Syria’s many rebel groups and addressing Washington’s fears that Islamist militants are getting their hands on weapons.

The Syrian National Coalition is currently seeking diplomatic recognition for itself and the future government. Thus far, the U.S. and Arab League recognized the Coalition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but stopped short of calling it the sole representative of the people. According to Clinton, full recognition will come with the Coalition demonstrating “its effectiveness in advancing the cause of a unified, democratic, pluralistic Syria”. On Tuesday, France became the first Western nation to recognize the Coalition as the sole representative of Syrians, stating the question of arming the rebels “will have to be renewed” in nations that back the new group.

The Syrian National Coalition hopes to bring about similar results in its country as did the Libyan Transitional National Council, which the international community rallied around in its efforts to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Given its restrictions that include a Washington that is thus far unwilling to arm the rebels and an immobile UN Security Council, whether or not the Coalition will reach its goals remains to be seen.