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Syrian opposition leader sends a message to Hezbollah

Former head of the Syrian opposition coalition Moaz al-Khatib directed a speech yesterday to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, urging him to withdraw Hezbollah's fighters from Syria or risk dragging the Middle East into decades of Sunni-Shia violence.

"Is it satisfying to you that the Syrian regime shells its citizens with fighter planes and Scud missiles, mixing the blood and flesh of children with bread?" Khatib asked Nasrallah, who has been President Bashar al-Assad's most prominent ally in the Arab world. "Is it pleasing to you that thousands of women have been raped?"

A little context sheds some light on why Khatib chose this moment to address Nasrallah. Syrian military units and Hezbollah cadres have launched a fresh offensive on the rebel-held town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. The deepening involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian war has threatened to destabilize Lebanon -- two prominent Salafist clerics, Ahmed al-Assir and Salem al-Rifai, responded by calling on Lebanese Sunnis to join a holy war against Hezbollah's presence in Syria.

Furthermore, Khatib resigned his post as head of the Syrian opposition coalition on April 21 -- but now seems to be having second thoughts about that decision. He released a statement on Facebook saying that he would remain as president, and published a legal opinion on his website that deems the opposition coalition's selection of a replacement for him illegal. Khatib's message to Nasrallah, in which he refers to himself as the opposition president, might therefore be a way to seize the spotlight away from his internal rivals.

Nevertheless, Khatib's message to Nasrallah will no doubt serve as a milestone in the fraught relationship between the Syrian rebels and Hezbollah. Khatib warned that Hezbollah's decision to fight on behalf of Assad would help "drag the whole world of Islam into a Sunni-Shia war ... in which there will be no victor."

Khatib also addressed Nasrallah as a fellow religious leader, discussing how Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian war would sabotage the Party of God's social agenda. "Some of the stances of some members of your party has caused a tidal wave of atheism that has begun to invade generations," he said. "Those stances, in my opinion, cannot be affiliated in any way to the Prophet's household."

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Qatari prime minister: Bashar used chemical weapons

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani on Wednesday accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people, joining Britain, France, and Israel in determining that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used deadly poison gas in violation of international norms.

Al Thani, answering questions at an event in his honor sponsored by the Brookings Institution, spoke frankly about Qatar's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which has thrust the tiny Gulf monarchy into the center of the region's conflicts and controversies.

The Qatari prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is in Washington with a delegation headed by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled Qatar since deposing his father in a 1995 coup.

"Chemicals? He used chemicals, and there is evidence," Al Thani said, referring to Assad. He described the Syrian ruler's strategy as an attempt to "test your reactions" and incrementally cross U.S. President Barack Obama's "red lines." Al Thani did not say whether Qatar had made its own independent assessment of the use of chemical weapons, or whether it was relying on other countries' reports.

The United States has not made a determination on the Syrian regime's alleged chemical-weapons use, but a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday pressing him to make "a public determination on this important national and international security issue."

Al Thani, whose meeting with Obama Tuesday apparently went over time, urged the president to be more aggressive, though he declined to cite any specific measures. "The United States has to do more," he said. As for Qatar, "We did not want to take the lead. We wanted to take a back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat."

Al Thani also denied persistent charges that Qatar is finding jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda and been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. "We did not give any aid financially or any other way to these people," he said, insisting that Qatar was working with the United States and other allies through "operation rooms" in Jordan and Turkey. He said accusations to the contrary were started by "families" in the region -- perhaps an allusion to one of Qatar's neighbors.

Al Thani described a meeting he had with Assad at the beginning of the uprising, before the Syrian leader gave his first speech on the crisis. He said he told Assad: "There is a way to rule before Bouazizi and a way to rule in our region after Bouazizi," referring to the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Syrian uprising. "So things have to change."

Assad made certain promises, he said, but never followed through on his commitments. Instead, Al Thani said, he appeared before the Syrian parliament "and he was joking ... there was blood in the street, people being killed."

"He has only one way," Al Thani said. "Kill and kill and kill until you win."