BEIRUT: Syria’s political opposition has struggled to prove its relevance amid the civil war under a leadership largely made up of academics and exiled politicians. With its relaunch as a new organization, it has taken a different tack: choosing as its head a popular Muslim cleric who preaches sectarian unity and can fire up a crowd.
The selection of a moderate religious figure, Mouaz al-Khatib, to head the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is also an attempt to counter the growing influence of Islamic extremists in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
While lacking in political experience, the 52-year-old preacher-turned-activist is described by Syrians as a man of the people — a modest, unifying figure who commands wide respect among the country’s various opposition groups and rebels.
A Sunni Muslim former preacher at Damascus’ historic Ummayad Mosque, al-Khatib warned against the militarization of the Syrian uprising and the pitfalls of sectarianism very early in the conflict.
“My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druse as a one- hearted community, and with us lived our dear brothers who follow Jesus peace be upon him,” he told a crowd of supporters in a Damascus suburb in April 2011, only one month into the uprising.
“We should adhere to this bond between us and protect it at all times,” he added, drawing in excited cries of “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!”
Twenty months into the conflict — as Syria sinks deeper in a civil war with increasingly deadly sectarian overtones — it is this message of unity and moderation that many inside and outside the country are hoping the new leaders can help convey.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country’s disparate factions fighting to topple Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday to form the coalition headed by al-Khatib.
Unlike many of Syria’s exiled opposition leaders who have been seen as out-of-touch, jet-setting academics, al-Khatib is an activist who often criticized the regime even before the uprising began. Once it started, he was arrested and jailed four times on charges of supporting anti-government groups, before he finally fled the country in the summer of 2011.