Moderate face of Syrian uprising quits

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis | Reuters

AMMAN (Reuters) – The head of Syria’s main opposition group resigned on Sunday, weakening the moderate wing of the two-year revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and complicating Western efforts to back the rebels.

The resignation of Moaz Alkhatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who had offered Assad a negotiated exit, could make the West more cautious in supporting the revolt. Alkhatib was seen as a moderate bulwark against the rising influence of al-Qaeda linked jihadist forces.

Syrian opposition leaders are due to attend an Arab League summit this week, Qatar said earlier on Sunday, looking for more support for their armed uprising.

Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha, said Alkhatib’s resignation throws a spanner into the summit.

“The premise of the summit is to determine whether the opposition has a legitimate right to sit with Arab states,” Stephens said. “While Khatib may have blamed the EU summit, it is well known that the Arab League is meeting today, and his resignation will have a serious effect on the process.”

Alkhatib was picked to head the Western and Gulf-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was formed in Qatar in November.

His resignation is seen as having been to some degree caused by Qatar, the main backer of his political foes in the coalition, and the country spearheading Arab support for the revolt as its geopolitical ramifications deepen.

The conflict pits Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority against Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has controlled the country for almost five decades, deepening the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in the Middle East and raising tension between Gulf states and Iran.

Asked to comment on Alkhatib’s resignation, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Doha: “We are very sorry for this, and I hope he reviews his resignation.”