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Syria: Will new opposition leader bring unity?

Mouaz al-Khatib, a religious leader and a voice of moderation, has been chosen to lead the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Supporters hope the new coalition can provide a conduit for foreign aid. 

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In this file photo, Syrian opposition figure and prominent Syrian human rights activist Haytham al-Maleh, left, congratulates Muslim cleric Mouaz al-Khatib after he was elected president of the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, in Doha, Qatar.

AP Photo/Osama Faisal

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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.

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