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Syria opposition leader preaches unity

Moaz Khatib's supporters hope for new momentum and a departure from infighting, as well as global recognition that could bring funding and heavy weapons.

November 13, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times
  • A Syrian government airstrike killed a dozen people and injured scores more in the northeastern border city of Ras Ayn, opposition activists said.
A Syrian government airstrike killed a dozen people and injured scores… (Resit Dag / Anadolu Agency,…)

BEIRUT — The speaker conveyed a message of harmony at a funeral for some of the first victims of the Syrian uprising.

"We are all one," Moaz Khatib told mourners gathered on April 2, 2011, in Duma, a largely Sunni Muslim town outside Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The victims had died at the hands of President Bashar Assad's security services, dominated by his Alawite sect. But the speaker eschewed sectarian rhetoric.

"Alawites are often closer to me than other people," Khatib told the crowd in the largely Sunni Muslim town, in a video posted on YouTube.

Today, Khatib, 52, a Sunni Muslim preacher and civil engineer, is taking that same message of unity with him as president of the just-formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He was named to the post Sunday after a week of often-contentious discussions in Doha, Qatar's capital, finally produced the coalition.

Khatib's appointment has been widely praised in dissident circles and among foreign backers of the Syrian opposition. His supporters view Khatib as a charismatic leader with a history of moderation and an appeal to both religious and secular Syrians.

The challenges he faces are many, as evidenced in Syria on Monday, where violence continued apace, with several of the nation's far-flung border areas engulfed in conflict.

Khatib's supporters see a chance for a new momentum and a decisive departure from the infighting and divisions that have beset previous, exile-heavy Syrian opposition groups. The new coalition says its members represent the broad spectrum of Syrian society. Khatib, who was detained several times during the uprising, left Syria in July only after his life was threatened, supporters say.

He is said to come from an esteemed clerical family associated with Damascus' historic Umayyad mosque. He is reportedly a professional engineer who studied geology.

On Monday, Khatib and other members of the new coalition made their case for international recognition in Cairo to the Arab League, which designated the group the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian opposition. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, representing oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf states, earlier took similar action.

How the new coalition's message of moderation will translate on the often chaotic Syrian battlefield remains opaque. There is no central command among the scores of anti-Assad militias. Several militant groups, some with purported links to Al Qaeda, have formed fighting units.

The United States and its allies have pushed the opposition to unify and "be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution," in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Khatib and the new opposition coalition will be looking for more international recognition as a kind of government in exile. That recognition opens the way for the coalition to seek additional funds — and weapons — from potential donors.

Opposition activists insist their side needs heavy weapons, including shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, to defeat Assad's forces, which rely heavily on air power. Washington and its allies say they will provide only nonlethal aid, fearing in part that heavy weapons could end up in the hands of extremists. Whether gulf states and other prospective donors will find it easier to turn over such heavy weaponry remains unclear.

It was a Syrian government airstrike Monday, opposition activists said, that killed a dozen people and injured scores more in the northeastern border city of Ras Ayn. Many fled into neighboring Turkey, some working their way through barbed wire fences. The bombing shook windows across the border in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, prompting Israeli forces to fire back into Syria.

Unlike Israel's retaliatory fire on Sunday, which military officials described as a "warning shot," the strike on Monday did cause damage, destroying a mobile Syrian artillery unit, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.

Officials would not comment on whether the destroyed artillery emplacement was controlled by the Syrian army or rebel groups.

Israeli officials say the mortar fire is not targeted at Israel but is a spillover from the Syrian violence. But one unidentified military official told Israeli media Monday that the frequency of incidents is causing Israel to reevaluate that conclusion.

Marrouch is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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