Muaz al-Khatib was probably the most popular figure among Syrians on the ground that the outside opposition has had. He was a charismatic figure who had broad appeal among seculars and non-seculars alike (although he was not very popular with the Salafis). His brand of religiosity was seen by many as a reflection of Syrian society’s religiosity as a whole: religiously conservative, but certainly not extremist.
One of the things that made Muaz al-Khatib popular was steps he took against the rigidity of the rest of the opposition with his initiative, commonly referred to as the “Khatib Initiative.” The opposition’s policy of “No dialogue with the killer regime,” though principled, had failed to yield any results. This policy allowed the regime to portray the opposition as the “stubborn ones,” despite the fact that the regime itself has never been seriously interested in any kind of negotiations (which it continues to show to this day). Rejection of any kind of negotiation may have been principled, but it was bad politics.
The Khatib initiative, despite its strict preconditions for dialogue which included freeing political prisoners, was critically received by many in the opposition, most notably those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, many on the ground in Syria (including many of the Local Coordination Committees) welcomed the initiative as a step forward in that it was the first time the exile opposition had made a serious attempt to establish a tangible change on the ground that didn’t simply include asking countries for help or weapons. Personally, I didn’t think the initiative was going to yield any immediate tangible results, however, I believed it was a clever political move by Khatib as it put the regime in the tough position of having to openly reject negotiations.
The initiative ultimately made Khatib some enemies, particularly among “the hawks” of the Syrian opposition. Last week, when Ghassa Hitto was elected prime minister for the Interim Government, it was perceived by many as a move specifically meant to challenge Khatib’s authority and weaken it. Ghassan Hitto, who does not have the legitimacy that Khatib has, especially considering the fact that most Syrians had never even heard of him until he was elected, is a politically weak figure, which seems to suggest that he was not chosen based on merit or appeal on the ground (because he has none), but rather, due to the fact that some players knew that they could control him, which is something they couldn’t do with Muaz al-Khatib.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya, prominent Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo accuses the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari-backed forces in the Syrian opposition of propelling Hitto to power in a non-consensual manner: “Qatar wanted Hitto…and the Qatari-backed group in the National Coalition agreed on Hitto and imposed Hitto, without any political or consensual considerations that thinks of Syria in terms of a national cause…” Kilo implies that the election of Hitto was among the reasons that frustrated Muaz al-Khatib into resigning.
Since the beginning of the uprising, the Assad regime and its apologists all over the world have claimed that the entire Syrian opposition (outside and on the ground) is a group of Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood supporters who don’t represent Syrians. This characteristic lack of nuance on the part of the Assadist camp is now crumbling upon these latest events as the tension between the Qatari-backed camp and the rest of the Syrian opposition becomes more evident. So yes, it is true that Qatar is trying to impose its influence on the Syrian opposition. What is untrue is that they have totally succeeded in doing so and that the entire Syrian opposition has happily accepted it. To simply write off the entire Syrian opposition as a Qatari/Muslim Brotherhood front is reductive and ignores the tension and power struggle within the Syrian opposition. It also undermines and renders invisible all those in the Syrian opposition who are actively resisting Qatari influence on decision-making.
Many have claimed that Khatib’s resignation is a result of Khatib’s frustration with the international community in failing to support the Syrian opposition. Yet, the resignation clearly shows the fault lines within the official Syrian opposition. There are those Qatari-backed forces who are motivated primarily by self-interest. They are strong, cohesive, and act in concert. They don’t care about achieving consensus, nor do they care about electing figures with charisma or legitimacy. The primary motivation for their political maneuvers is simply to control as much as they can. Once Khatib challenged that control, it became evident that he was not part of this camp. So, in turn, the camp decided to challenge his authority with someone who, no matter how pure his intentions, was unknown and had relatively little legitimacy with Syrians. To the Qatari-backed forces, legitimacy on the ground is not a necessary condition to lead people on the ground, only legitimacy amongst them is. The audacity this camp had to challenge someone with such wide appeal among everyday Syrians and to opt for someone as illegitimate as Hitto shows where their interests lie. Simply put, Hitto being imposed and Khatib resigning out of frustration is bad for Syria, but good for the Qatari-backed camp in the Syrian opposition.