The leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition resigned Sunday, destabilizing the rebels' two-year uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Mouaz al-Khatib, a respected preacher and moderate Islamist who had spearheaded the Syrian National Coalition since it was formed last November, said in a post on his Facebook page that he was following through on a vow to leave his position if unspecified “red lines” were crossed.
“I had promised our people … to resign if the situation reaches certain red lines. Today, I honor my promise and I resign from the National Coalition to be able to work with freedom not available through official institutions,” al-Khatib said.
“We have been slaughtered under the watchful eyes of the world for two years, in an unprecedented manner by a vicious regime,” he said of the bloody civil war that has plunged the nation into chaos, leaving at least 70,000 people dead.
“Everything that happened to the Syrian people – from destruction of infrastructure, arrest of tens of thousands of their children, displacement of tens of thousands, and other tragedies – is not enough for the world to make an international decision to allow people to defend themselves,” al-Khatib added.
Al-Khatib’s resignation comes on the heels of his recent decision to offer Assad a negotiated exit from Syria, which received harsh criticism from many prominent figures in the opposition movement.
And despite al-Khatib’s protests, the coalition last week took steps to form a provisional government that would have weakened al-Khatib’s influence in domestic affairs, Reuters reported.
Coalition figures picked Islamist technocrat Ghasshan Hitto as the provisional government’s prime minister. Hitto is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Reuters.
The departure of Al-Khatib deals a significant blow to the moderate faction of the uprising, which many Westerners see as a safeguard against the rise of insurgent fighters linked to al-Qaeda.
The shake-up in the Syrian National Coalition, which is recognized by scores of nations and international bodies as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, could potentially make Western powers more reluctant to sponsor rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who appeared alongside al-Khatib in Rome when the U.S. announced additional aid to the Syrian opposition group in late February, said he was disappointed to see al-Khatib step down — but not surprised.
“I am personally sorry to see him go because I like him on a personal level,” Kerry told reporters on a trip to Baghdad on Sunday.
“The notion that he might resign has frankly been expressed by him on many different occasions in many different places,” Kerry added.
At the end of his Facebook post, al-Khatib said he plans to remain involved in efforts to bring down Assad’s regime.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues, those who seek the freedom for our people,” al-Khatib said.
“A little bit of patience, our people,” he added. “Isn’t the morning near?”