Syrian anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday under intense international pressure to form a new opposition leadership that will include representatives from the country’s disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, activists said.
The opposition has been deeply divided for months despite the relentless bloodshed in Syria and repeated calls from their Western and Arab supporters to create a cohesive and representative leadership that could present a single conduit for foreign aid. The agreement, reached Sunday after more than a week of meetings in the Qatari capital of Doha, could boost efforts to secure international support — and potentially weapons — that will be crucial in the war to oust Assad.
“We have agreed on the broad platform and all (opposition) parties, without any exception, support this initiative,” said Ali Sadr el-Din Bayanouni, a former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader who took part in the talks.
He said the new leadership will be called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.
Later Sunday, the delegates elected Islamic preacher Maath al-Khatib as president of the new coalition. Leading opposition figures Riad Seif and Suheir Atassi were elected vice presidents.
Mustafa Sabbagh was voted the coalition’s secretary-general.
In a bid to be more representative and curb the influence of exiles considered out of touch with events on the ground, the new coalition will include activists from inside Syria as well as rebel commanders.
It will also include representatives from the largest current opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which initially resisted the idea of a new leadership council, viewing it as a threat to its claim of primacy. After some wrangling, the SNC secured 22 of the 60 seats in the new coalition.
SNC secretary-general Bassam Ishak said the new leadership was “an important and positive move forward.”
“This new body will help up mobilize more international support and resources for the Syrian opposition,” he said.
Another SNC member, Wael Merza, said the new group had the support of major regional backers including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, which can open up “new channels for funding.”
He said the SNC will retain its independence as a group, but will also fully back the wider opposition coalition.
Al-Khatib, 52, is an Islamic preacher from the capital Damascus who was detained several times since the uprising began on charge of supporting anti-government groups. He ran as an independent.
Al-Khatib, a geophysicist who used to work for a local oil company, left Syria earlier this year. He was once the preacher of Damascus’ historic Ummayad Mosque and heads the Islamic Modernization Group.
Al-Khatib is known as a moderate who has called for political pluralism and strongly opposes sectarian divisions among Syrians.
Naming him as a president of the coalition could be a move to counter Muslim extremists who are gaining power among rebel groups.
Seif, 66, was a member of the so-called “Damascus Declaration” group — a coalition of pro-democracy activists that came into existence after Assad came to power in 2000.
Seif is one of the country’s most prominent opposition figures. He was released from prison in July 2010 after years in jail for anti-government activities.
He was arrested for the first time in 2001 for criticizing Assad and sentenced to five years in prison. He was re-arrested in January 2008 and sentenced to two and a half more years on charges of “weakening national sentiment,” a term usually used to mean carrying out anti-regime activities.
Syria had previously banned Seif from travel, a measure regularly taken against dissidents. In 2007, the U.S. State Department urged Syrian authorities to allow him to leave the country to receive medical treatment.
Seif told The Associated Press in 2007 that refusing to allow him to seek treatment abroad for prostate cancer was “like being sentenced to a slow death.”
Atassi comes from an influential family from the central city of Homs. She has been an outspoken critic of Assad for years and was arrested days after the uprising began while taking part in an anti-government protest in central Damascus.
The SNC was formed last year but quickly came to be viewed as ineffective and out of touch with activists and rebels fighting a bloody war on the ground.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized the SNC late last month and called for a leadership that can rally broader support, including inside Syria.
After the agreement was signed, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar, Ahmet Davutoglu and Hamad bin Jassim, joined the conference. Davutoglu said claims of divisions among the opposition “are over now.”
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said the new coalition “is a major achievement on the road to a new Syria.”
All opposition groups and figures taking part in the Doha meeting rejected any dialogue with Assad’s regime.
The Syrian government has dismissed the meetings in Doha. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi called them political folly. In an interview on state-run Syrian TV aired late Friday, al-Zoubi said those who “meet in hotels” abroad are “deluding themselves” if they think they can overthrow the government.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests. A regime crackdown prompted fierce fighting, propelling the conflict into a civil war that has taken on sectarian overtones.
In all, activists say more than 36,000 people have been killed.
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