News Analysis: The tale of two speeches

March 19, 2013

By SAS News staff

The Syrian opposition’s two leaders on Tuesday delivered hard-hitting speeches containing at times contradictory statements that both praised and condemned the international community’s actions toward Syria.

Interim Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto and National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib stressed the Coalitions's refusal to negotiate with the regime, despite a fresh round of American-led diplomacy urging dialogue.

As rumors swirl about Khatib's anticipated resignation, it has not happened yet, and for that reason, we accept both leaders' statements as reflecting the future intentions of the National Coalition.

Hitto, for example, thanked Gulf and Arab countries for their support as al-Khatib noted about those same states: “Some countries are sending young people to fight in Syria because they want to get rid of them, not because they love Syria or believe in jihad.” Syria “is not your playground,” Khatib scolded.

Both Khatib and Hitto did not hesitate to take direct punches at the regime: “It is the regime that kills physicians, bombs bakeries and attacks universities,” Khatib said, comparing the Syrian government to an addict hooked on the drug of violence. Regime partisans “take an extra dose when unsatisfied,” the coalition leader added. 

Khatib’s speech was laced with standard Arab-leader rhetoric (hinting darkly at the actions of “some countries,” without ever naming names, for example). Perhaps reflecting Hitto’s more than two decades living in America, his no-frills Arabic speech got straight to the point and efficiently covered all the bases. It sounded more like an action plan an American CEO might unveil at a board meeting. 

“Our first and primary priority is to topple the Assad regime,” Hitto began, stressing that “there will be no dialogue” with the government.

Ministers and advisers “will be chosen according to their professional capacity, not their allegiances,” Hitto continued, surely quashing the hopes of Syrians used to “Vitamin W” in their diets – an Arabic slang reference to wasta, or the network of connections by which most Arab governments are run.

Hitto laid out a reasonable plan to cooperate with the FSA and stressed the importance of restoring law and order and normalizing people’s lives. He made reasonable requests for support from the international community, including a call to release frozen regime funds into the hands of the transitional government.

Meanwhile, Khatib’s evocative comments tapped surprisingly deeply into the Syrian consciousness, capturing the messiness and confusion people experience in war zones.

His speech came the closest to what we at SAS News hear from Syrians inside the country every day, from praising fellow Syrians as being able to solve their problems if left alone, and yet bitterly wondering how “the largest states” intervene across the region and yet “give us too little when we ask for help.”

While thanking donor countries for aid, al-Khatib then spoke directly to Syrians, saying: “My message to the Syrian people is that they shouldn’t trust any state and to have faith only in God,” a sentiment reflected in the consistent refrain we hear people saying in video clips and interviews from inside Syria: “ما عنا غير الله”, or, “all we have is God.”

Khatib acknowledged the presence of gangs and thugs robbing citizens while ostensibly representing opposition factions. The coalition leader, who can come across as gentle, naïve, or both, shrewdly turned that weakness into a point to support his argument for a transitional government. “Because of these things, we need an authority,” he said.  

Over at Syria’s state “news” agency (SANA) today, one of the lead stories is entitled “Army cracks down hard on terrorists.” The story begins, “the Armed Forces on Tuesday carried out several operations against the armed terrorist groups in Homs countryside, inflicting heavy losses upon them.” This is the regime vision: an endless stream of crackdowns on “terrorists.” It is a remorseless, defiant, unapologetically brutal hellscape that worsens every month.

Before us, we have two visions of the future Syria. One is the SANA version, perpetually stuck in 1968. The other brings together Khatib, the former imam of the Umayed Mosque in Damascus, and Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-Kurdish-Texan. They make an unlikely pair to lead Syria forward, and yet, how can they get anything less than our full support?