Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib speaks to the media.
Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib speaks to the media after meeting with Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi in Cairo February 11, 2013. Photo by Reuters
Text size

The head of Syria's main opposition group resigned on Sunday, in a blow to a diminishing moderate wing of the two-year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Moaz Alkhatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who had offered Assad a negotiated exit, was picked to head the Western and Gulf-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November after leaving Syria following persecution and several stays in jail.

Al-Khatib's resignation came after the coalition berated him for offering Assad a deal and after the group went ahead, despite his objections, with steps to form a provisional government that would have further diminished his authority.

"I had promised the great Syrian people and promised God that I would resign if matters reached some red lines," Alkhatib said in a statement on his official Facebook page, without explaining exactly what had prompted his resignation.

"Now I am fulfilling my promise and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition in order to be able to work with freedom that cannot be available within the official institutions," he said.

A spokesman for Alkhatib confirmed his resignation.

Last week, the coalition chose Islamist leaning technocrat Ghassan Hitto as a provisional prime minister to form a government to fill a power vacuum in Syria arising from the two-year-old revolt that has killed more than 70,000 people.

Alkhatib, who had argued insufficient groundwork had been done to start forming a government, was weakened considerably, along with a moderate wing of the revolution as Jihadist salafists play a bigger role on the battlefield.

Hitto, whose cabinet is supposed to govern rebel-held areas currently ruled by hundreds of brigades and emerging warlords, was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and coalition Secretary General Mustafa Sabbagh, who has strong links with Qatar.

"Basically Qatar and the Brotherhood forced Alkhatib out. In Alkhatib they had a figure who was gaining popularity inside Syria but he acted too independently for their taste," said Fawaz Tello, an independent opposition campaigner.

"They brought in Hitto. The position of Alkhatib as leader became untenable."

The appointment of Hitto prompted nine people to suspend their membership in the 62 member body, saying that promises to reform the coalition and respect consensus have been discarded.

Earlier this year, Alkhatib floated an initiative for the opposition to talk to Assad's administration about a political transition, but said the Damascus government did not respond.

In his statement, Alkhatib added: "We will follow the path with our brothers who aim for the freedom of our people."

He said official positions were "means to serve noble objectives" and not an aim in themselves.

Moaz al-Shami, a leading activist in Damascus, said Alkhatib's resignation deprived the coalition, which consists mostly of exiles, of the figure best known inside Syria, but that Alkhatib still could still play a major role in the revolt.

"The opposition does not deserve Sheikh Moaz. He is a moderate and a non-sectarian figure who was acting like the statesman Syria should have. A lot of people did not agree with his peace offer to Assad but they respected him," Shami said.

Meanwhile, the prime minister of Qatar said on Sunday that leaders of Syria's main opposition group will attend an Arab League summit this week, looking for more support for the armed uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The Arab League has suspended Assad's membership and recognized the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the people of Syria, where a two-year civil conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.

Qatar's prime minister welcomed the SNC's appointment of Ghassan Hitto as provisional prime minister - an appointment which upset liberals in the coalition who said the SNC was becoming dominated by foreign influences and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We look forward to their participation in the Arab summit [on Tuesday]," Sheikh Hamad in Jabr al-Thani said at the opening of an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Doha, the Qatari capital where the summit will also take place.

Arab League foreign ministers agreed March 6 to let member nations arm Syrian rebels, and invited the opposition coalition to take the League seat formerly occupied by Damascus.

Previously the League had said only that the Syrian political opposition and rebels should be supported by humanitarian and diplomatic means.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have championed Syrian rebels, and called on the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions to end the conflict that has also displaced hundreds of thousands of people.