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Syria: Will new opposition leader bring unity?

Mouaz al-Khatib, a religious leader and a voice of moderation, has been chosen to lead the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Supporters hope the new coalition can provide a conduit for foreign aid. 

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Unlike many of Syria's exiled opposition leaders who have been seen as out-of-touch, jet-setting academics, al-Khatib is an activist who often criticized the regime even before the uprising began. Once it started, he was arrested and jailed four times on charges of supporting anti-government groups, before he finally fled the country in the summer of 2011.

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"He is a man of the people, a very popular figure who is close to the young and knows how to talk to them," said Maath al-Shami, a Damascus-based activist who said he spent a lot of time talking to al-Khatib before and after the uprising began.

"Al-Khatib has an open mind and he comes from a respected family. He is not a politician, but I think he is someone that all Syrians can rally around and trust," he added.

At first glance, the soft-spoken, somewhat professorial al-Khatib may not come across as a commanding figure. In interviews and speeches, he uses language full of metaphors and flowery images. Unlike many clerics who wear flowing robes, he wears a suit and sports a short, graying beard.

But at anti-government rallies, al-Khatib has proved to be a fiery orator.

At a protest in the Damascus suburb of Douma in April 2011, he climbed a podium, grabbed a microphone and urged demonstrators to repeat after him: "Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful!"

The protest was organized by a crowd mourning Sunni demonstrators who were said to have been killed by pro-Assad militiamen from the president's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Al-Khatib stressed unity among Syrians and preached against hatred and sectarianism. Standing next to him were two prominent Alawite and Christian regime opponents.

"I say to you that Alawites are closer to me than many other people I know," he said. "When we talk about freedom, we mean freedom for every single person in this country."

Omar al-Rami, a student and rights activist who left Syria earlier this year, fearing arrest, said al-Khatib's election gave him renewed hope after months of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the opposition.

"He is also someone who can influence and help rein in extremist groups who have hijacked our revolution," al-Rami said.

Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists, including the al-Qaida inspired Jabhat al-Nusra group, are gaining influence in Syria, which has discouraged the West from giving military aid to rebels, fearing the weapons will end up in the wrong hands.

But some opposition figures believe Washington could give its tacit support to others funneling weapons if the new broad-based rebel coalition holds together and gains international legitimacy, winning recognition from the Arab League and other groups.

In an interview with broadcaster Al-Jazeera aired Tuesday, al-Khatib said the international community has a "moral and legal" obligation to side with the united opposition leadership.

He declined to say whether Qatar or Gulf allies would begin shipping heavy weapons to the rebels, but made clear that efforts to increase the rebel arsenal is a top priority. He suggested that rebel forces could impose their own no-fly zone if given heavy weapons.

"Give them the means to defend themselves, and they will create their own no-fly zone," he said in fluent English.

Al-Khatib also said he supports a tolerant, Islamic state that respects everyone including secular Syrians.

"Any garden is so nice if full of flowers of all kinds," he added.

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