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The Monitor's View

A model leader for Syria?

A moderate Muslim preacher who suffered as a freedom fighter in Syria has been chosen as opposition leader to Assad. Now, Moaz al-Khatib must unite a people torn by civil war and religion.

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“I say to you that Alawites are closer to me than many other people I know,” he said Sunday after being elected president of the National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition. “When we talk about freedom, we mean freedom for every single person in this country.”

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He’s also a convenient compromise between the West’s desire for democracy in Syria and the interests of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two nondemocratic Arab states that simply want an end to a regime that serves as a terrorist and Shiite proxy for rival Iran.

The former petroleum engineer, who wears a tieless suit as an imam, argues forcefully for political plurality, including equality for women. “If you find any good in me, then help me,” he said last week. “And if you find evil, then remove me.”

Yet he also seeks the influence of Islam in a secular, elected government. That view gives him credibility to stand up to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. They have gained support among rebels fighting within Syria and who have soured on the prospect of the West offering antiaircraft weapons.

The United States has wisely not rushed to fully endorse Khatib or recognize the new coalition, in part to avoid damaging him as a Western puppet but also to make sure he can unite a fractious opposition and fully backs the principles of no discrimination against non-Sunni sects and women. In a sign of tentative support of the new group, the US upped its humanitarian aid to Syrians by $30 million.

Khatib’s credibility as leader is bolstered by two coalition vice presidents with similar credentials as democracy activists. One is a woman, Suhair al-Atassi, and the other is a longtime dissident, Riad Seif. A third vice president, a Kurd, will be selected by the 60-seat coalition soon.

A unified opposition would allow more aid to flow to rebels and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Syria’s civil war. While Khatib’s selection was largely due to outside pressure for the opposition to unite, he and all Syrians now have a better opportunity to fulfill the ideals of democracy for themselves.

Only as much as Khatib lives those ideals will historians commend him as the right leader at the right time to help reshape the Middle East.

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