Opposition leader quits as rifts deepen within Syria's rebel coalition

Moaz al-Khatib urged to remain as head of alliance trying to form transition government

The Syrian opposition was thrown into turmoil today as its leader Moaz al-Khatib quit, the latest in a spate of resignations which has undermined the group’s legitimacy as it attempts to set up a transitional government.

Announcing his resignation, Mr al-Khatib cited the lack of international support for the rebels, but the move comes against a backdrop of deep rifts in the Western-backed coalition between liberals and Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a further blow, a Free Syrian Army spokesman said rebels rejected the organisation’s recent appointment of a transitional prime minister.

The coalition – formed after lobbying from Western nations which wanted to see a more inclusive organisation to replace the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC) – was already under pressure after nine members suspended their membership last week. Some complained that Muslim Brotherhood members on the coalition, backed by Qatar, had railroaded in their candidate for interim prime minister, the US citizen and long-time Dallas resident Ghassan Hitto.

Louay al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the FSA’s General Salim Idris, yesterday said the prime minister could not be recognised because he had not received the broad support of coalition members. The former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun and the veteran liberal dissident Kamal al-Labwani were among those who walked out of the vote in protest.

Mr al-Khatib, a moderate Damascus cleric, has been increasingly sidelined within the opposition since he made an offer of dialogue with the regime earlier this year – an overture which was criticised by more hardline elements of the coalition.

He said that leaving would allow him to “work with freedom that is not available inside the official institutions”. In a statement, the coalition rejected his resignation which it said had not been accepted by its general assembly.

“[Assembly members ] are asking Mr Moaz al-Khatib to go back to his work as the president of the coalition,” it said. “Khatib has led the Syrian National Coalition at a very critical stage. He has pushed the coalition forward skilfully, and has gained popularity and acceptance among the Syrian people.”

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the Mr al-Khatib’s departure would not affect co-operation on aid

The Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said he hoped Mr al-Khatib would reassess his decision ahead of an Arab League meeting in Doha at which the coalition is expected to be handed Syria’s seat.