Inside Syria, rebels offer cautious support for unified council

Fighters on the front lines of the Syrian war expressed optimism about the new council formed out of Syrian opposition groups. 

Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters
Leading Syrian dissident Riad Seif (l.) speaks with former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected from the Assad regime, during the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council in Doha November 11. Syria's fractious opposition finally put aside fierce arguments to rally behind a new leader within a new coalition that its Western and Arab backers hope can topple Bashar al-Assad and take over the country.

A day after Syrian opposition groups agreed on a new unified opposition council following a week-long meeting in Qatar, those inside Syria say they are pleased with the development but will place little weight on it until the new leadership produces results. Many Syrians have long felt let down by the international community and their own leaders abroad for failing to provide enough support.

“For right now we don’t know what it will do, but we are supporting it and hope it will live up to its promises to bring down the regime and provide a transitional government,” says Bader Abu Ahmad, a Syrian activist and a member of the People’s Party.

For months Syrian opposition factions have suffered from divisions and in-fighting even as they work together to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Previously the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group until now, had caused much frustration among Syrians who accused the group of being out of touch with the ground realities of the conflict and spending large sums of money without attaining significant results.

The new leadership council, called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces incorporates leaders who have been in Syria recently and those who have long been in exile. There is some hope that the new coalition can tip the scales by serving as a vital conduit for much needed international assistance.

Leaders relatively unknown

Maath al-Khatib, a noted Sunni cleric from Damascus will serve as the president of the group. Mr. Khatib has a reputation as a moderate who encourages unity between Syria’s different religious and ethnic groups. Many also hope that he will enjoy support among those inside Syria because he has actively opposed the Assad regime and was arrested and imprisoned several times during the Syrian uprising.

“I don’t know a lot about him but he has a good reputation,” says Tariq Mohara, a police officer for the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “As politicians, it’s good for them to unify. As a military, we are unified.”

Still, on the front lines of the conflict Khatib remains a relative unknown with many of those now fighting for a “Free Syria.”

“We don’t know about this guy, but any step toward a united Syria makes us happy,” says Shadi Hafeez, a fighter in the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “I don’t care if they never come to Syria, as long as they want to help us this is good, but if they can’t and they just take money than I will not be happy.”

Riad Seif and Suheir Atassi will serve as Khatib’s vice presidents. Both Mr. Seif and Ms. Atassi are well-respected opposition figures. Like Khatib, few on the frontlines in Aleppo recognized Seif, but Atassi is a more well-known figure and long-time critic of Assad.

Many foreign governments and organizations have hesitated to provide assistance to the Syrian opposition due to its fragmented leadership. For those in the FSA who have grown frustrated by a perpetual shortage of weapons and supplies, the new leadership is of little matter unless it proves able to deliver tangible results that have thus far remained elusive.

“We are fighters here on the front and we just need ammunition and things to help us fight. We hope it will help, but it hasn’t yet,” says Abu Ismail Shamali, an FSA fighter in Aleppo. 

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