Moaz al-Khatib

David Gardner

Moaz Al-Khatib (L), with Lakhdar Brahimi during the Munich Security Conference on February 1 (Getty)

Moaz Al-Khatib (L), with Lakhdar Brahimi during the Munich Security Conference on February 1 (Getty)

Moaz al-Khatib, the Damascene preacher elevated to lead Syria’s rebel coalition last November, is the most astute tactician the opposition has fielded so far.

The feelers al-Khatib has put out to Bashar al-Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran are clever, even though anyone who discerns diplomatic progress here, let alone the birth of a “peace process”, will be disappointed.

Al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (the full title by which more than a hundred countries recognised the rebels in December) has ostensibly revived the idea of a dialogue with the Assad regime, in weekend talks held in Munich with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers – who both said this was what they had been advocating all along. But the devil is, as ever, in the detail.

The conditions set by al-Khatib include: the release of 160,000 prisoners (the number he says) the regime is holding; the issue of passports to tens of thousands of refugees who have had to flee Syria without papers; and that any talks on transitional arrangements to end the war should be with Farouk Sharaa, the Syrian vice-president.

A little more than implicit in the latter point is the offer of safe passage out of Syria for President Assad – which most rebel forces on the ground and a good number of the political figures in the National Coalition regard as taboo, maybe even treachery. Read more