Syrian opposition groups unify, boosting prospects for outside support

The agreement reached Sunday could boost efforts to secure international support and potentially weapons for Syria's rebels.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter holding a machine gun is seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar as he pauses in the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain November 11. On Sunday, Syrian opposition groups unified under a new organization known as, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.

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, are supporting 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. Opposition delegates in Doha were expected to vote on the new leadership's president later Sunday.

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.

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.

US 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.

According to a draft of the agreement to form the new coalition, a transitional government will be formed after the coalition wins international approval. The coalition will also call for a national conference once Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is removed from power.

After the conference, the coalition and transitional government will be dissolved.

All opposition groups and figures taking part in the Doha meeting rejected any kind of dialogue with Assad's regime.

The Syrian government has dismissed the meetings in Doha, and 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, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions in the Middle East. But 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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