The first impression made by Sheik Ahmad Mo’az al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition, was misleading. It was Friday, February 1, at 10:30 p.m., and the participants in the Munich Security Conference had convened in a special night session to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. While Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator for Syria who opened the discussion, was delivering his gloomy evaluation of the hopelessness of finding a solution and the impotence of the West in this respect, many in the audience were watching al-Khatib with much curiosity.
Bespectacled and sporting a short, sparse beard, al-Khatib never lifted his eyes for a moment as he leafed through the papers he was holding, displaying apparent disinterest in what was going on, and looking something like a bohemian European author. “Is this the next president of Syria?” one very senior European diplomat skeptically asked his neighbor.
Brahimi finished speaking and David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, who was chairing the panel, called upon al-Khatib. He looked up from his papers and began speaking. His fiery blue eyes dovetailed with his sharp words, delivered in polished fus’ha (literary Arabic). He spoke without pause, flowingly and with great charisma, without looking once at his notes. The simultaneous translation into English was done by a woman who from minute to minute also seemed to be carried away with enthusiasm at both the tone and the words of al-Khatib’s speech. When it was over, there was relatively prolonged applause, unusual for the staid and formal Munich forum. The same diplomat now adopted a decidedly different tone when he said: “A born leader.”
At about half past midnight, when the discussion has ended in the main hall of the Bayerischer Hof, Munich’s grandest hotel, I went up to al-Khatib, who was standing to one side, and I asked him a few questions. I never dreamed that what was said, or wasn’t said, in that conversation would become, within a few days, a red-hot potato in the war over public opinion being waged by the Assad government, Iran and Hizballah against the Syrian opposition.
The interview was published the next Friday, in the weekend magazine of Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel’s largest daily, and aroused only minimal interest locally. Details of the Syrian civil war, as long as it does not spill over the border into Israel, interest very few Israelis. But the response in the Arab world was different: A number of Websites and media outlets identified with Syria and Hizballah, led by the latter’s TV station Al Manar, gravely twisted al-Khatib’s statements as I had quoted them in the interview and used them to batter him and depict him as a Zionist agent:
Innumerable other sites copied the texts, which al-Khatib had denied, and very soon the issue became a blazing battle of words between the sides, who are trying to acquire supporters in the struggle that is tearing the Middle East apart today.
From my own point of view, the sad truth is the exact opposite of the attempts to portray al-Khatib as a collaborator with Western intelligence services and Israel. After we had spoken for a short while, when I offered al-Khatib my business card and he saw the name Yedioth Aharonoth, he blurted out in surprise “Hebrew letters,” and abruptly ended the interview.
The head of the New York Times bureau in Beirut, Anne Bernard, and the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner filed a story on the affair, pointing out that it had hit a nerve in relations between Hizballah and the Syrian opposition. The Times story said that the distortion of al-Khatib’s words was yet another attempt by Hizballah to divide the Syrian opposition:
Image Credits: BBC