Although not a polished performer in the political arena, he has managed to install himself in a pivotal role at the centre of the Syrian crisis. Despite the on-going violence in Syria, the West and its allies appear increasingly reluctant either to intervene in support of the rebels or supply them with sophisticated arms. As a result, the country, and its long-suffering people, are mired in a bloody stalemate.
Meanwhile, a shift in western diplomacy is emerging. Whereas the international community was previously polarised between pro-Bashar Al Assad and “Al-Assad-must-go” camps, it now appears to be converging on the idea of a negotiated settlement and transition towards free elections — though for completely different reasons.
For Iran and Russia, Al Assad is a key regional ally whose downfall will have inevitable repercussions at home. For the West and its Arab allies, the prospect of Syria becoming a magnet for well-armed, battle-hardened jihadists is increasingly alarming. Jabhat Al Nusra — essentially a wing of Al Qaida in Iraq — along with many other armed Islamist groups, has played a major role in the rebel armies’ military successes, but was recently designated a terrorist entity by Washington. It is not an easy task to arm only the “good” rebels.
The West is also jittery about Israel’s security. It is not only threatened by jihadists mustering on its doorstep, Hezbollah and Al Assad himself — his chemical weapons are a particular worry — but also by the uncertain nature of any post-Al Assad regime.
I have been told by well-placed sources, that US support for any new regime in Damascus will be contingent upon it making two major commitments: First, to enter a peace treaty with Israel and second, to combat Al Nusra and other jihadist elements in the country with an Iraq-style “Awakening” campaign, pitting indigenous groups and security services against their erstwhile comrades-in-arms.
Hence, Washington’s mounting reservations about arming the rebels, the sudden interest in a political settlement and a level of cooperation with Iran and Russia on this issue.
Key to the new international mood for talks is the leader of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Muath Al Khatib. Although Al Khatib is not a polished performer in the political arena, has changed his stance more than once and is accused by colleagues in the coalition of acting unilaterally, he has managed to install himself in a pivotal role at the centre of the crisis.
Al Khatib first caused a stir when he broke ranks and called for dialogue with the Al Assad regime two weeks ago. Days later, he headed for Munich where he broke another taboo by meeting high-level representatives of Al Assad’s key allies: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Tellingly, US Vice-President Joe Biden was also in Munich where he is known to have met Lavrov.
Al Khatib reiterated the offer of negotiations with the regime after Munich, suggesting it got the go-ahead from all parties who were present and nominated Farouq Al Sha’ra — the Syrian Vice-President who has distanced himself from the regime’s use of violence — as a suitable go-between.
Whether Al Khatib’s proposed route will be acceptable remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the idea of a negotiated settlement continues to gain traction, as demonstrated by events at last week’s Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Cairo.
Syria was expelled from the OIC last August in protest at the Al Assad regime’s violence. However, the SNC was not invited to fill the gap at last week’s Cairo conference, even though Syria was the main topic of discussion and Al Khatib himself is currently based in Cairo for security reasons. Six months on, the OIC is clearly unwilling to burn its bridges entirely with the Al Assad regime.
Meanwhile, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first leader of his country to visit Egypt in 34 years. Arriving a day early, he was accorded the red-carpet treatment and an immediate tete-a-tete with Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi — suggesting an urgent search for common ground. Last August, the OIC summit rang with calls for arming the rebels and Al Assad’s immediate abdication. Only Iran and Algeria demurred, with Iran proposing a negotiated, political settlement.
Last Thursday, however, the OIC had entirely changed its tune with all its 56 members agreeing to a new resolution, urging dialogue between representatives of the Al Assad regime “committed to political transformation” and the opposition.
The caveat that the regime’s officials should be “not directly involved in oppression” is woolly, but may intimate a leading role for Al Sha’ra as well as a slight concession from Iran. In effect, the OIC was endorsing Al Khatib’s initiative.
Many are questioning the role and motives of new Syrian Kingpin, Al Khatib. The Americans might see him as a potential puppet — the Karzai of Syria — and it was notable that his coalition did not condemn Israel’s recent air-strike inside Syria.
However, the former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus has a reputation for being an independent thinker and is clearly prepared to take a risk. We will have to wait and see what cards he is concealing in the hand he holds so closely to his chest.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.