Western leaders welcomed the Syrian opposition's unification into a new organization, which they hope will provide a means to bolster rebels on the ground in Syria in their fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
BBC News reports that the West hopes the new opposition body, currently called The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, will provide a conduit that will allow funding – and possibly military aid – to be funneled to the Syrian rebels on the ground who are doing the actual fighting.
"We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad's bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve," US state department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the move was an "important milestone in forming a broad and representative opposition that reflects the full diversity of the Syrian people."
The West had attempted to use the previous leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council, to a similar end, but the SNC proved too fragmented and detached from rebel forces to be successful, leading the US to publicly call for a new approach two weeks ago. The SNC will hold 22 of the new body's 60 seats.
The BBC adds that Qatar, host of the opposition talks and a key backer of the rebels, also welcomed the unification. Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani said that he plans to travel Monday to "seek a full recognition of this new body" at the Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership due to the government's attacks on civilians.
Former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun told The New York Times that he hoped the world would act quickly to embrace the new group. “I think the difference will start to show right away on the ground as the people will feel that there is a political power that represents them, and one body that unites its opposition,” he said. “We expect international recognition in regional and international forums.”
Russia's response to the new opposition body was cooler, according to Agence France-Presse. The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement cautioning the new body against being manipulated by foreign powers. "The main criteria for us is that members of such alliances must act based on a platform of peaceful regulation of the conflict by Syrians themselves, without interference from outside and through dialogue and negotiation," the statement read. Russia has stood by the regime of President Assad, a regional ally, since the uprising began, and has blocked several Western attempts to act on the conflict through the UN Security Council.
The Associated Press reports that China – which has also vetoed UN Security Council measures against Assad's government – was similarly reticent to support the new body. The AP writes that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei sidestepped a question about China's support for the new body, and whether the West holds too much sway over it, saying China hopes that Syrians will end the fighting and begin a political solution "led by the Syrian people as soon as possible."
The new opposition group is headed by Syrian cleric Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, reports Al Arabiya. Mr. Khatib, widely seen as a moderate and independent without links to the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic groups, was an imam in Damascus and was arrested in 2011 and 2012 by the Assad regime for his vocal support of the uprising.
Khatib will be supported by three vice-presidents: Riad Seif, a prominent dissident who had once been tapped to lead the new body; Suhair al-Atassi, a leading female opposition figure; and a yet-to-be-named Kurd. The new group is also backed by the SNC's new leader, George Sabra, a Christian.