ISTANBUL -- Syria’s political opposition met Thursday in Istanbul to elect new leadership, choose a government-in-exile and deliberate on a negotiating stance for peace talks, but it hit a controversy when the immediate past president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a Muslim cleric who no longer holds any post in the group, presided over the opening session and released a surprise peace initiative without consulting the group.
It wasn’t clear why Mouaz al Khatib was even in the chair to open the meetings. Khatib has twice resigned as the president of the group, and the coalition – formally called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – had appointed an acting president, George Sabra, a Christian, to replace Khatib in late April. It was Sabra who’d represented the coalition Wednesday at a meeting in Amman, Jordan, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from 10 other countries.
The confusion was indicative of the difficulty the coalition has had organizing itself since it was willed into existence last October after the United States declared that it no longer had confidence in another Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Since then, however, the new organization has missed several deadlines for appointing a government that would rule should President Bashar Assad fall.
Khalid al Saleh, the coalition’s spokesman, said Khatib “led the very first session, and after that it was transferred.” He noted that Khatib’s term, had he remained president, ran out May 11, as did that of his successor, but that the coalition’s bylaws didn’t specify who’d be president after that date.
Haitham al Malih, a former Syrian judge, compared Khatib’s afterlife as president of the coalition to that of other Arab leaders who’ve resigned in public but remain in their posts.
Malih said he was incensed by Khatib’s issuance of a 16-point peace plan that in effect would retain the Assad regime, without Assad, for an interim period and allow Assad to leave the country with 500 of his closest aides and their families. Assad would turn power over to Vice President Farouk al Shara or the current prime minister, Wael al Halqi, 20 days after accepting the initiative.
Malih said he’d chastised Khatib before the 63-member Coalition General Assembly, whose deliberations weren’t open to the public.
“I said before all of them: ‘You are not alone. You cannot say this is my idea,’ ” Malih told McClatchy. He quoted Khatib as responding: “It’s an individual thing, it has nothing to do with the coalition.”
Malih said some of Khatib’s backers defended the initiative as an attempt to embarrass the Syrian government, and its principal foreign backers, Russia and Iran. But spokesman Saleh said the Syrian government already had rejected the idea, though he said the proposal still would be discussed during the meetings here, which originally were set to last two days but now might run four days or more.
The coalition will discuss on Friday what position to take toward a proposed peace conference that Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have called for next month in Geneva.
Saleh said the coalition was uncertain what the peace conference could accomplish. “Things are still way up in the air,” he said.
Malih was more direct in criticizing the proposed conference, which would include representatives of the opposition and the Assad government. "It is crazy," he said. "We cannot change from fighting now with weapons to apply for peaceful negotiation until we became more powerful than the regime. Before that, nothing will happen."
The coalition, to which the United States has pledged $60 million, is expected to select new leaders and name an interim government. Although there were signs this past week that Ghassan Hitto, the coalition’s interim prime minister, was about to be ousted, Saleh said Hitto would have more than one chance to survive a confidence vote among the participants.
The coalition plans to expand its membership by bringing in sectors of Syrian society that aren’t well represented now, including the Kurdish population and women. But it will have to sift through some 250 suggestions for new members and pare them to 31, Saleh said.
What seemed to be missing from the meeting here was a sense of urgency about the precarious situation that anti-Assad rebels find themselves in on the ground, where government forces have been scoring victories for the past several weeks, particularly in the area surrounding the town of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon.
There, as many as 20,000 civilians are holed up in the town as government troops, backed by pro-Assad militia and fighters from Lebanon’s Assad-allied Hezbollah movement, maneuver to recapture it. Saleh didn’t mention the siege of the town until he was asked by a Syrian “citizen-journalist” who’d recently left Damascus.
Saleh said the first thing the delegates did was discuss Qusayr. “They have set up committees to talk with people there and to monitor the situation, not only about Qusayr but also about all the massacres taking place in Syria. They’re trying to gather information from eyewitnesses to give to the international community,” he said.