Hard times for Syria's rebels: top commander injured, PM rejected

The rebel Free Syrian Army's Col. Riad al-Asaad was reportedly injured in a blast, while the Free Syrian Army rejected the political council's appointment of Ghassan Hitto as provisional prime minister.

Free Syrian Army/AP
In this undated file photo, Syrian Commander Riad al-Asaad, who heads a group of Syrian Army defectors appears on a video posted on the group's Facebook page. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday March 25, 2013, a bomb stuck to his car targeted Asaad during a visit to the town of Mayadeen in eastern Syria.

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One of the Syrian rebels' top military leaders was wounded – and perhaps killed – by a bomb today in eastern Syria, while Syria's tenuous opposition threatened to come further unglued after the resignation of its leader and a rejection of the group's new provisional prime minister.

Col. Riad al-Asaad, the nominal head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was injured in a blast in the town of Mayadeen in eastern Syria, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  Agence France-Presse reports that, according to the Observatory, Assad survived a car bomb and was transferred to Turkey for treatment of his injuries.

The Associated Press notes that Assad, while titularly the leader of the rebels' military wing, in fact plays a largely symbolic role, having been superceded by the Office of the Chiefs of Staff, which is associated with the leading opposition political group, the Syrian National Council. But even the office's influence is limited, as most militias on the ground in Syria wage their campaign against the government independently of a military command structure.

The disconnect between the military on the ground in Syria and the politicians of the council was further exposed by the FSA's rejection of the council's appointment of Ghassan Hitto to the office of provisional prime minister. AFP reports that the FSA's leaders announced that they do not recognize Mr. Hitto's appointment, saying they "cannot recognize a prime minister who was forced on the National Coalition, rather than chosen by consensus," according to FSA media coordinator Louay Muqdad.

Voice of America notes that Hitto received 35 votes out of 48 cast in an election held last Tuesday by the 62-member group, but that several prominent dissidents boycotted the vote.

Hitto's appointment also appears to have prompted the council's president to resign. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, on Sunday announced his resignation as the president of the Syrian National Council, reports Reuters. Mr. Khatib, a moderate Sunni who in recent weeks had called for negotiations with members of the Assad regime to end the Syrian civil war, saw his influence limited by the appointment of Hitto, an Islamist-leaning technocrat backed by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"I had promised the great Syrian people and promised God that I would resign if matters reached some red lines," Alkhatib said in a statement on his official Facebook page, without explaining exactly what had prompted his resignation.

"Now I am fulfilling my promise and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition in order to be able to work with freedom that cannot be available within the official institutions," he said.

The Washington Post reports that Hitto's appointment had been opposed both by Khatib's faction within the council and by the United States, "whose diplomats argued against the move on the grounds that it created an unnecessarily divisive distraction from the goal of bringing down Assad’s regime, according to Syrian opposition members."

But the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood backed Hitto in a move "widely seen as an effort by the Brotherhood to claw back some of the influence lost when the original Syrian opposition body, the Syrian National Council, was absorbed into the wider Syrian coalition."

The Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, offers further insight into Khatib's departure:

Syrian opposition sources said Khatib had been unhappy for some time and that his frustrations had come to a head over the recent decision to appoint a prime minister of a transitional government – though he was not opposed personally to Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian of Kurdish origin who has been living in the US.

Qatar, hosting this week’s Arab League summit in Doha, had pressed for the move in part to allow the anti-Assad opposition to take over the Syrian government seat on the league council when the conference opens on Tuesday. The Muslim Brotherhood also backed Hitto.

Khatib, the sources said, is also angry at the flow of weapons to jihadi type armed groups compared to the few getting through to the Free Syrian Army, in part because of disagreements between Britain and France, which would like to lift the EU arms embargo, and other member states.

The Guardian also notes that the council has not accepted Khatib's resignation, and has asked him to reconsider.

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