BEIRUT – Syria's political opposition has struggled to prove its relevance amid the civil war under a leadership largely made up of academics and exiled politicians. With its relaunch as a new organization, it has taken a different tack: choosing as its head a popular Muslim cleric who preaches sectarian unity and can fire up a crowd.
The selection of a moderate religious figure, Mouaz al-Khatib, to head the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is also an attempt to counter the growing influence of Islamic extremists in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
While lacking in political experience, the 52-year-old preacher-turned-activist is described by Syrians as a man of the people – a modest, unifying figure who commands wide respect among the country's various opposition groups and rebels.
A Sunni Muslim former preacher at Damascus' historic Ummayad Mosque, al-Khatib warned against the militarization of the Syrian uprising and the pitfalls of sectarianism very early in the conflict.
"My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druse as a one- hearted community, and with us lived our dear brothers who follow Jesus peace be upon him," he told a crowd of supporters in a Damascus suburb in April 2011, only one month into the uprising.
"We should adhere to this bond between us and protect it at all times," he added, drawing in excited cries of "One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!"
Twenty months into the conflict – as Syria sinks deeper in a civil war with increasingly deadly sectarian overtones – it is this message of unity and moderation that many inside and outside the country are hoping the new leaders can help convey.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country's disparate factions fighting to topple Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday to form the coalition headed by al-Khatib.
The coalition includes representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was harshly criticized by many, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for being cut off from rebels fighting the war on the ground and for failing to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership.
The SNC itself elected a new head on Saturday — George Sabra, a Christian dissident who was repeatedly imprisoned by the Assad regime. His group holds 22 of the 60 seats in the coalition.
The opposition has been deeply divided for months despite the relentless bloodshed and repeated calls from Western and Arab supporters to create a cohesive and representative leadership that could present a single conduit for foreign aid. The agreement, reached after more than a week of meetings in the Qatari capital of Doha, could boost efforts to secure international backing — and possibly weapons — that will be needed to oust Assad.
Al-Khatib has appealed to foreign countries to supply military aid to the rebels, but unlike other opposition leader, he opposes foreign military intervention, saying Syrians should topple Assad on their own.
Born in Damascus in 1960 to a well-known Sunni family, al-Khatib took the same road as his father, Sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Faraj al-Khatib, a former preacher and prominent Islamic affairs scholar.
He studied applied geophysics and worked as an engineer for nearly six years at the state-run Al-Furat Petroleum Co. before becoming the imam of the Ummayad Mosque. In the 1990s, he was banned by Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, for sermons that were perceived to be against the regime.
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.
"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.