Divisions Remain In Syrian Rebel Coalition

Robert Siegel talks to professor Joshua Landis about the leadership and future of the shaky Syrian opposition coalition.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One could be forgiven for being confused about the Syrian rebels, who's in charge and what their demands are. At this week's Arab League summit in Doha, the capital of Qatar, opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib sat in Syria's seat. Al-Khatib, formerly an imam at a prestigious mosque in Damascus, recently resigned his post as president of the rebel coalition.

That was after Ghassan Hitto, a naturalized American citizen, was named the provisional prime minister. Why such divisions? Who's calling the shots? Well, we're going to ask Professor Joshua Landis, who's a very well-informed Syria watcher at the University of Oklahoma. Welcome to the program once again.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's deal first with Moaz al-Khatib, the president who has resigned who's also complained today about the refusal of the U.S. to supply areas under rebel control with Patriot missiles. First of all, is he on board with the rebel coalition? And what does he stand for?

LANDIS: Well, he did resign moments before this big meeting in Doha. But he says he will not retract his resignation for the time being. But he is performing leadership duties until the opposition council general committee meets. So his leadership is in play. There has been a power struggle going on within this civilian opposition body.

SIEGEL: Who is struggling with whom?

LANDIS: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood made a power play in which they got behind this fellow, Ghassan Hitto from Dallas, Texas, and catapulted him into this leadership position, which seemed to completely sideline Moaz al-Khatib. Moaz al-Khatib resigned. About 10 secular members of the opposition also put their membership on hold. And there was a showdown. Immediately, this threw the situation into chaos.

The military, supreme military leadership, which is the counterpart of this civilian leadership, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, said, we won't back Ghassan Hitto and the Muslim Brotherhood faction. So Doha immediately called up Khatib, said you come. You represent. Don't quit. And what is going on now are negotiations to try to patch up once again the different factions of this coalition.

SIEGEL: I mean, one lesson of history would be that it's very often that people who've been inside the country fighting, taking losses who determine what happens after a civil war rather than the figures outside who've been negotiating and dealing with foreign powers. Do these people who are now part of the political leadership, do they stand a chance of telling the armed factions what to do?

LANDIS: No, it doesn't seem that way right now. Nobody is listening to them. But once the arms factions win, they're going to have to build the country again. And Syrians are extremely talented. You know, Syrians love to point to Jobs, the head of Apple, whose father was a Syrian and say, we have this incredible talent out there. And there are millions of Syrians all over the world who are participating in this revolution.

And their expertise is going to be needed. And so at some point, the men with arms who are going to win this battle on the ground are going to need that exiled community, the people who are living abroad.

SIEGEL: How significant was it that Moaz al-Khatib, the president in exile, if you will, but one who has resigned was sitting there representing Syria in the Arab League?

LANDIS: It was very important. It was mostly symbolic but it also has other legal implications. For the first time, an international organization has recognized the Syrian rebels as the rightful government of Syria. And for the entire Arab world, to watch this spectacle on TV, this has a lot of impact. A friend - a Christian friend from Aleppo just called me this morning.

He said he's been on the line with his sister who's sitting in a hotel in Lebanon with 80 other Christians, and he said they were devastated by this because they support the regime. There was this pall of horror, in a sense, and depression. But that same depression mirrored in that hotel was mirrored with the excitement amongst many Syrians who saw this as the beginning of a new Syria.

SIEGEL: Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, thank you very much for talking with us.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure.

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