Historians often haggle over whether leaders drive events or ideas do. And scholars will certainly do so again regarding Moaz al-Khatib of Syria.
He is a moderate Islamic preacher and well-respected activist for freedom who was chosen last week to lead a grand coalition of opponents to the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad.
He has been all but anointed by most Arab nations, France, and Turkey – and perhaps soon by the Obama administration – as a legitimate successor to Mr. Assad. For now, though, he serves as a potential galvanizing leader for a revolution mired in extreme violence and drifting away from its democratic roots and toward jihadist terrorists.
Mr. Khatib is a unique creature of his culture, much like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (Burma) and the late Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. He carries the credibility of being a victim of repression, having been jailed many times for his pro-democracy views and injured by a bomb. Yet he carries few grudges as he clings to a higher view of humanity as redeemable and reconcilable.
Take, for example, his statement to a crowd near Damascus soon after the Syrian uprising began last year: “My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, and Druze, as a one-hearted community. And with us lived our dear brothers [Christians] who follow Jesus, peace be upon him. We should adhere to this bond between us and protect it at all times.”
A lover of metaphors from his years as a Sunni preacher in Damascus’s historical Umayyad Mosque, he recently painted this image of a tolerant and inclusive Syria to come: “Any garden is so nice if full of flowers of all kinds.”
Khatib’s background and oratory may not only help heal a fragmented opposition, but also convince Syria’s Alawite religious minority that it can safely withdraw its support from an Alawite-dominated regime.
“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.”
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.