The new crisis within the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which President Obama last December recognized as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, provides fresh evidence of divisions between moderate and Islamist elements among the opposition.
On Sunday, just two days before an Arab League summit is expected formally to hand Syria’s seat to an opposition representative, coalition president Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib resigned, expressing frustration over the level of international support for the anti-Assad campaign and hinting at unspecified problems within the coalition.
Days earlier, the coalition had met in Istanbul to elect a provisional prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, to head an interim government to govern “liberated areas.” He is scheduled to attend the Arab League gathering summit in the Qatari capital, Doha, this week.
But Hitto, a U.S.-educated Syrian, is viewed by some in the opposition as a flag bearer for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood’s key supporter, Qatar, and his election has prompted strong objections.
The head of the coalition-affiliated Free Syrian Army’s supreme military council, Gen. Salim Idris, issued an online video message at the weekend saying the FSA refuses to recognize Hitto.
Idris said further the FSA would not accept Khatib’s resignation.
Several other coalition members have resigned recently, in some cases complaining about the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence and Qatar’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. (Qatar’s prime minister on Sunday voiced “regret” about Khatib’s decision to resign, but said Hitto would be welcomed at the summit.)
Asked during a visit to Baghdad Sunday about the changes in the Syrian opposition coalition, Kerry said he was personally sorry to see Khatib go, but added that the U.S. had worked with Hitto in the delivery of aid and had “confidence about his abilities.”
Still, the weekend developments are a new setback to efforts by the U.S. and Western allies to encourage the development of a credible opposition to the Assad regime.
The coalition was only formed last November, after the U.S. and others lost faith in the former main rebel group, the Syrian National Council, which many viewed as Muslim Brotherhood-dominated.
‘Our common goals’
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been sending arms to Syrian rebels for the past year, and during a visit to the two Gulf states early this month Kerry said the U.S. supports their decisions to do so.
For its part, American assistance at this stage is restricted to humanitarian and “non-lethal” aid for the FSA; the State Department has not commented on reports that the U.S. is also providing some training for Syrian rebels, across the border in Jordan.
Some experts have warned that the military aid to rebels from abroad is mostly boosting Salafi-jihadist elements among the opposition forces, but Kerry has focused, in his public statements at least, more on the other side of the conflict – the support the Assad regime is getting from its allies in Iran and Hezbollah.
In Baghdad, he pressed Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government about the flow of Iranian arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace.
“We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the overflights,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “I made it very clear to the prime minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.”
Kerry added that he told Maliki there were those in America, including some members of Congress, who wondered how Iraq – “a partner in the efforts for democracy” – could at the same time be “doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals” in Syria.
In a background briefing ahead of the meeting, a senior State Department official said Kerry would tell Maliki that Iraq’s involvement in “conversations about the future of Syria” would depend on its cooperation.
“The secretary will talk with him about the importance of Iraq participating, but at the same time it wouldn’t be appropriate, make any sense, for Iraq to participate so long as it is facilitating Iran[ian] overflights and overflights of fighters and weapons that support Assad.”
The official would not discuss how the U.S. knows that the flights are carrying military rather than humanitarian supplies, as Iraq and Iran maintain.
“Suffice to say that we know. That’s the best I can do.”
The official said Kerry’s “goal is not to get into a tit-for-tat about how we know this or how we know that, but to explain that the number of the flights is, in itself, an indication that these can’t possibly be only humanitarian flights and that he himself, as secretary of state, is convinced that they include weapons and fighters and that this is absolutely contrary to the international goals with Syria.”
Collaborating with Iran in the Syrian conflict was also “dangerous” for Maliki, the official argued.
“It seems to us, that from the spillover of the fighting in Syria into Iraq, which we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, that he’s on a dangerous track to think in terms of only working with Iran. Now, he knows that his future requires integration into – or reintegration into the Gulf, into the rest of the Arab world. And he is, after all, an Arab.”