After initially threatening a boycott, Syria’s opposition agreed Monday to attend a meeting on Thursday in Rome of the so-called Friends of Syria group of nations that support the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the agreement came only after Secretary of State John Kerry personally called opposition leader Mouaz Khatib and urged him to come.
Khatib’s agreement to attend the meeting, to which more than 70 countries are expected to send representatives, came after Khatib had at first refused to attend, saying the United States and other nations had not protested vociferously enough the Assad government’s launching of ballistic missiles from Damascus to Aleppo and had not provided enough assistance to rebels fighting to topple Assad. A suspected SCUD missile reportedly killed 12 people in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, on Saturday.
The back and forth over Khatib’s travel to Rome underscores the challenges of U.S. policy toward the Syrian opposition. Khatib’s group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, was formed in October largely at the behest of the Obama administration. But its creation came as the U.S. was also considering adding one of the Syrian opposition’s main military units, the Nusra Front, to its list of proscribed foreign terrorist organizations as a front for al Qaida in Iraq. When that designation was announced, Khatib, a prominent Muslim cleric, protested and joined a chorus of opposition voices endorsing Nusra.
Since then, U.S. officials have declined to include the opposition council in some meetings on aid to displaced people inside Syria. Kerry also has said that providing lethal aid to the rebels would be difficult because of the presence of Nusra and other radical Islamist groups among the fighters.
On Monday, Kerry indicated to reporters in London that the U.S. may be willing to change its position.
“The Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming,” Kerry said after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. “We are not going to let the Syrian opposition not have its ability to have its voice properly heard in this process.”
Khatib also said that he would not travel to the United States or Russia for talks, a reversal of his position that he was willing to negotiate with representatives of the Syrian government. That offer had earned him the ire of other members of the opposition but respect from war-weary citizens who are increasingly becoming refugees both inside and outside the country.
Khatib’s initial rejection of the Rome conference sparked a flurry of diplomatic efforts to change his mind. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, flew to Cairo to meet with him, and Khatib reported on his Facebook page that he had met with ambassadors from several countries on Sunday.
“Sometimes you must take a principled stand to send a message,” said Mouaz Mustafa, the political director of the Syrian American Task Force, a U.S.-based group with ties to the opposition. Mustafa met with Khatib on Saturday.
“Assad cannot be deposed without the consent of the U.S.,” Mustafa said. “So far, the U.S. has not done everything that it can do.”
The stream of visitors on Saturday at the suburban Cairo house Khatib uses as an office included other Syrian opposition leaders.
“You can see in his demeanor he is overwhelmed,” said Mustafa, who met with Khatib two months ago, shortly after he was chosen as head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “Every day that passes, people are dying, and he feels responsible.”
Khatib, the former imam of the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus, Syria’s most important religious site, remained in Syria until last year and fled only after being jailed for participating in demonstrations against Assad. That history separates him from many of Syria’s exiled opposition, who left Syria decades ago.