Mouaz al-Khatib was elected president of the Syrian National Coalition in November, 2012. A preacher and peace advocate, he was arrested by Syrian security forces several times in the years 2011 and 2012 on the basis of his support for the popular movement which demanded the toppling of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Khatib, the Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was able to escape from Syria in July 2012, and put forward an initiative for dialogue with the regime in February 2013 which was rejected by the regime and the opposiiton Syrian National Coalition, which considered it "an individual initiative".
Khatib also called the international community to arm the FSA, and on 24 March, 2013, he visited Aleppo, where he announced his resignation from the Coalition to work "freely".
Khatib recently visited Moscow with a delegation of the opposition. Madar al-Yaom interviewed Khatib, asking him about the new initiative, which was described by a prominent opposition figure as a "cry", more than an initiative.
MY: Your recent visit to Moscow received many objections, and was described by a prominent opposition figure as a "cry" more than an initiative. Was it?
MK: There was not really an initiative. It was a meeting with the Russian leadership, which has an influential role in Syrian solution. Our visit was aimed at opening a window to move the international recession towards a political solution. What we did was just a move to restore the priority to the Syrian solution, and this needs to be followed by all the political, military and civilian forces. We did not go to Moscow to sign on behalf of anybody, and we called on all forces to participate, as long as the basic idea is acceptable. We waited for what the official opposition will do but the waiting policy is no longer useful. Reactions must move towards reaching a solution and stopping the bloodbath, and the initiative is a move to form a national hub.
MY: Are there any contacts with the forces on the ground, and who are these forces?
MK: I do not want to mention names because mentioning names opens the door of confusion generated by the forces who don’t want a solution. We accepted the visit and worked for months with these forces and told everyone about it. Most of these forces did not object to the visit.
MY: You mentioned in your explanation about the visit that the departure of Assad will not take place in one day. This was interpreted as approval for the survival of Assad…
MK: The Russian invitation and agreement on our initiative was positive. The regime is responsible for everything that has happened and is happening in Syria, but we should walk towards the political transition and this needs arrangements. We did not talk about the details and the Russians expressed their opinion frankly: The opposition is dispersed and it is unable to rule.
MY: But Lavrov said they are sticking to Assad…
MK: He said that to express their position, and the Russians said it more than once; they are keen on the survival of the state, this person is running the country, and the opposition cannot run it. They asked the opposition to be ready in order to talk about the transfer of power. They asked the opposition to solve its problems and then come to reach an understanding. We conveyed this speech to the opposition, and the opposition accused us of treason, the opposition is sterile and it fights itself, and the main reason for Assad's survival is the continuation of the disintegration of the opposition and its inability to persuade the international parties of its ability to secure the country.
MY: Is your initiative based on the Geneva I statement?
MK: There is no doubt that every country defends its interests. The adoption of Geneva terms needs hard, serious and persistent work. The opposition is waiting for others to serve on its behalf, this will not be achieved. This should be our responsibility, we should not wait for a banquet from heaven.
MY: You have shown a willingness to sit with a delegation from the regime, are there potential candidates to be involved in a dialogue or negotiation process, and can these figures take decisions?
MK: Neither the regime nor the opposition have given specific names. We should communicate first, and then the names come, but there is a political and intellectual sterility among the opposition parties; there is hesitation. The regime is savage, Iran is an enemy, Russia is helping the regime, the opposition is only lamenting, and what then? Then we fight and fail, we must make efforts, the regime gains from all the political projects, so we must work to collect gains and improve the conditions for negotiations, and express our right in front of everyone.
MY: What is your opinion about the proposal of Staffan de Mistura about the freezing of the conflict in Aleppo as a starting point?
MK: I have an appointment with Mistura in days in order to understand the details, if these ideas come in the context of a savior move to alleviate the suffering of people, then so be it, but if it is to unload the case, certainly we do not agree. Therefore we call for a comprehensive political solution, so that no individual international or regional party reach an individual solution. If Mistura's proposal is part of a comprehensive political solution, we must work for it.
MY: Your visit faced criticism from the Coalition because of the lack of coordination with it, though figures from the Coalition and the government participated in the delegation, and there are leaks about a planned meeting between you and a delegation from the regime. How do you explain that?
MK: We did not plan for any meeting and we did not agree on anything. The space is open for the Coalition – and for everyone – to move and prove their presence. It was shameful that the Coalition has held meetings to discuss the visit, and did not hold one meeting to discuss the scourge of the Syrians. Why this language? We know that there are parties within the Coalition that meet with the regime, and that the Coalition does not have guardianship over the people, though they have to look for their place among people. The Coalition has to discuss and decide how to deal with the visit, but they still disagree on issues concerning the Coalition itself.
MY: How do you see the role of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria, both religiously and politically?
MK: If we go back in time, we will find the oppression has suffered because of the Islamic forces. Several parties grabbed this idea and worked to find these organizations to drag the country into a confrontation. They worked to make Islam seem to be a clash with the other in order to hit the moderate and open form of Islam in the Levant; the Islam we want. It was not the regime who founded moderate Islam, it has its deep roots in the Levant. On the contrary, the regime created the radical Islam and the regime is playing this card.
Politically, countries have interests and they opened lines with these extremist organizations to make political gains, Iran wanted to stop the expansion of the United States in Iraq. So this thought, and these organizations, the thought of Al-Qaeda and extremism, offended Syria and Syrians. We wish to be one hand inside Syria and abroad to overcome this unprecedented adversity in history.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer