Watch CBSN Live

Highlights from the interview with Syrian rebel leader Moaz al-Khatib

CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward interviewed Moaz al-Khatib, the man chosen to lead a newly formed coalition of Syria's opposition groups, in Brussels, Belgium. Below are highlights from the exclusive interview. Unless otherwise noted, Khatib's answers are translated from Arabic.

Syrian rebel leader commends U.S. endorsement

Clarissa Ward: How and what prompted you to leave Syria?

Moaz al-Khatib: I was arrested several times. But the last time, there was a huge explosion in the area where I used to be. And I received information that they intended to arrest me yet again. So I just left ... that was about a month after the I went out of prison .. and I went to Cairo.

Ward: When you left Syria ... did you have any political ambitions?


Khatib: No never. It never crossed my mind before. I always prefered to be involved in community and charity work. But the current circumstances are what imposed upon me to get me into politics ... to defend the rights of the Syrian people.

Ward: So, let's talk about this new coalition. Expectations are very high about what you can deliver and I just wonder, how is this coalition different from the Syrian National Council?

Khatib: The National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and opposition Forces takes in the Syrian National Council and many other opposition groups. The Syrian people has been looking forward to the unification of the opposition forces. The creation of this coalition has sparked a lot of optimism. This optimism has also been reflected on the local and international levels; It raised the hope that the crisis of the Syrian people and its sufferance at the hands of this authoritarian repressive regime may happen sooner.

Ward: One of the main concerns about the Syrian National Council was that it was not representative of all of the different sects within Syria. Is your coalition representative of all the different minorities inside Syria?

Khatib: The National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and opposition Forces is not a parliament. It is a revolutionary assembly that aims to topple the regime. Its internal system allows it to be open to subscriptions by the various opposition forces according to certain procedures administered by an acceptance/membership committee. The coalition takes in a wide number of Syrian opposition groups; revolutionary, civilian and military ones. As I said, the coalition internal system is open, and there are currently dozens of demands submitted by various groups to enter into the coalition. They are being reviewed by the committee .. and we welcome everybody onboard.

Ward: I am just wondering, what do you say to those communities who perhaps would be willing to turn against the regime but who are fearful of what would happen to them afterwards.

Khatib: The Syrian social fabric is tightly woven ... and this gives assurance to its various components. This is our main asset in reassuring the brothers from the other components. But, in truth, there are no 'components' .. there is only one (Syrian) people. In many of the areas that have already been liberated, the people who were not necessarily in favor of the revolution, were not harmed. People only hate the men who harm, arrest and kill them. It's not a sin for anybody to be born in this or that faith .. or to have different cultural backgrounds. The Syrian social fabric is our main guarantee.

The Free Syrian Army is another guarantee; Yesterday, they reached an advanced level towards its unification, and announced the formation of the Supreme Military Council. This council has pledged to take all necessary measures to guarantee the safeguard of human rights ... and also pledged to protect the entire Syrian people and defend its various communities.

Ward: You can make that guarantee from here. But can you enforce it on the ground inside Syria?

Khatib: Yes. There are areas that I would confidently say are safe areas. All individuals living in these areas are well and safe. It's the regime that tried using every possible manner to stir sectarian strife. Until now, it has mostly failed. The awareness of the Syrian people will thwart the other issues that haven't risen to the surface yet.

Ward: Does the coalition speak frequently with rebel commanders inside Syria?

Khatib: Frankly speaking, communication with the commanders inside Syria is not as we would have hoped for it to be, but our relationship is strong. We are in contact with them; Yesterday, I phoned the FSA Chief of Staff and congratulated him on this step that they've taken, and which was very important for the Syrian people. But we expect even more coordination and closer cooperation once the transitional government is in place.

Ward: If the regime falls tomorrow, will you be able to control all these different groups operating inside Syria?

Khatib: This indeed is a question that needs to be asked. I expect that there would be a good control on the ground because of the presence of hundreds of civil groups operating inside Syria. They don't like to appear in the media; they are working for the good of our country ... diligently but discretely ... and they are organizing themselves for when that day comes. They are already securing bread distribution, traffic control ... they are preoccupied with setting up judicial committees ... security committees. The Syrian people has taken big steps in the establishment the 'day after' committees. I could not say that this is covering every single part of Syria, but it is widely developping. That of course in addition to bigger institutions that will try to give more support to such groups on the ground.

There is also something very important, which is the humanitarian aid provided by the International community. This should not be seen as charity. The Syrian people have paid a high price, with its blood, to gain its freedom. They are now claiming their dues from the international community. The faster this humanitarian aid, the more the country will be spared further turmoils.

Ward: Do you feel the international community has done enough to help Syria?

Khatib: No. At all! (In English)

The International community fell short in its support to the Syrian people. For 20 months, the Syrian people have been killed, slaughtered ... its sons have been killed ... its women assaulted ... there are dozens of reports about children being tortured to death. The International community started to wake up now. Some organizations provided some modest aid, but we thank them for that. But, generally speaking, the international community has fallen short in providing that support.

Ward: When I was in Aleppo a couple of months ago, people were saying to me, not that they were disappointed ... but they were angry ... were angry with the west ... were angry with America. Do you share that anger with them?

Khatib: I understand the feelings expressed by the Syrian people; They are suffering a great deal. They are hurt to see that the countries around the world are just watching what they have to endure. The steps taken by the United States of by European countries were very slow. Maybe this was due to their governments being busy with some domestic or internal issues, or elections ... but now, we are hopeful that the American administration would move at a faster pace, and sends some positive signals to the Syrian people.

Ward: Of course the big concern that the US has had about giving weapons to the rebels is that these weapons might end up in the hands of extremists. How can you guarantee that heavy weaponry wouldn't end up in the hand of extremists, and how concerned are you about the problem of extremists operating inside Syria?

Khatib: I think the media has exaggerated this whole thing. The Syrian people has been dying for 20 months. Should we leave it to die? We should try and look at positives and negatives. None of the groups operating inside Syria now has expressed a negative stance towards the West, nor did they say they would undertake acts that threatens the security of any countries. We repect all what ensures the security of the international community. But this issues is highly exaggerated. There are many groups with clear objectives, and only aim to protect the Syrian people. These could be provided with arms so that they would not be subject to the bombardment of the regime, especially in the liberated areas that are continuously being pounded by Syrian warplanes without having any means to defend themselves.

Ward: Let's talk briefly about the situation on the ground in Syria. Do you believe that the regime is close to falling?

Khatib: The regime is being weakened ... and the revolutionaries on the ground are getting stronger. The moral of the people who rebelled against the injustice is getting higher. The regime could fall; That might depend on some of its own elements ... defections ... other cracks. But in any case, the regime is nearing its end. We don't want this to take long so that the Syrian people wouldn't have to pay even more with their blood.

Ward: When the regime falls, will you go back straight to Syria?

Khatib: This depends on the work requirements, and the needs of the Syrian people. I will surely visit the country, but I could not say how or for how long. As I said, this depends on the what we will need doing after the fall of the regime.

Ward: Would you like to be the president of Syria?

Khatib: (In English) I am not thinking about that now. And I wish for Syrians to have ...

(Back to Arabic)

I wish for the Syrian people to get their freedom ... and then it will be up to them to decide what they want to do ... chose whoever they want. Right now, I don't think about that.

Ward: Everybody is talking about the issue of chemical weapons at the moment. Do you believe that the regime will use chemical weapons potentially against its own people?

Khatib: This regime could do anything. They used cluster bombs and other banned weapons ... so it is possible they'd use chemical weapons. But if they do it, they will find themselves in a very awkward situation, especially vis-a-vis its allies because this would also bring them under heavy criticism. At the same time, it could push certain undisciplined groups to resort to uncontrolled responses ... and this is something that we reject. I therefore don't think the regime would embark on such a step, and if it does, that will be the inevitable end.

Ward: What does it mean to be recognized by the United States?

Khatib: The US administration has a big weight in influencing global decisions, and when the United states take such a step, this would be like an announcement to the International Community, that this regime has fallen, and that there is a new entity shaping up ... this new entity was only created through the blood that Syrians had to shed in order to obtain their freedom. But a step like that would pull the rug from under the regime, and on all levels; politically, economically and militarily.

Clarissa: Do you think it's an important step, or do you see it as too little, too late?

Khatib: No. It is an important step ... it is much anticipated ... and it would have a huge impact in holding back this regime.

View CBS News In