Syrian Factions Sign Tentative Deal to Unite Opposition

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Correction Appended

DOHA, Qatar -- Syrian opposition factions signed a tentative agreement on Sunday to create an umbrella organization, paving the way for international diplomatic recognition as well as more funding and improved military aid from foreign capitals.

After three days of haggling at a luxury hotel here, opposition negotiators agreed to the new coalition and then elected as its president Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus and a respected national figure within Syria. "Today in Doha is the first time the different factions of the Syrian opposition are united in one body," said Riyad Farid Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the highest-level defector from the Damascus government. "So we ask the international community to recognize the Syrian opposition as the representative of the Syrians."

The umbrella organization was designed to subsume the Syrian National Council, a previous attempt at unification that has appeared increasingly marginalized as Syria has descended into civil war. That group's authority was undercut when it failed to attract sufficient support from key minorities, religious and tribal figures, businessmen -- and, most important, rebel units conducting the fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

The hope among Western countries is that the new coalition, called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, can give local opposition councils the legitimacy to bring fighters under their authority. That would give an important countervoice to the well-armed jihadist commanders who in many places have set the pace of the fighting and created worries that Islamists will gain a permanent hold.

An important change in the new agreement is that revolutionary councils from 14 Syrian provinces now each have a representative, though not all live in Syria. The hope is that will bind the coalition to those inside the country.

Perhaps the most important body the new group is expected to form is a Revolutionary Military Council to oversee the splintered fighting organizations and to funnel both lethal and nonlethal military aid to the rebels. It should unite units of the Free Syrian Army, various militias and brigades in each city and large groups of defectors.

Before the ink was even dry on the final draft, negotiators hoped that it would bring them the antiaircraft missiles they crave to take on Syria's air force. The United States and Britain have offered only nonmilitary aid to the uprising.

A similar attempt by the Syrian National Council to supervise the military never jelled. Organizers said funding was too haphazard. Eventually foreign governments like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are financing and arming the rebels, found their own favorite factions to deal with.

Foreign leaders -- notably including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- urged this unification largely so they could coordinate their efforts and aid through a group of technocrats. Once it receives international recognition, the coalition is supposed to establish a temporary government.

Burhan Ghalioun, a former head of the old Syrian National Council, praised the coalition as a vital step toward getting the world more involved with Syria. "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."

He described Sheikh Khatib as an important rallying figure for the new group: "He's a national figure and symbol since the beginning of the revolution."

The delegates elected as vice presidents Riad Seif, 66, a Syrian businessman and dissident who organized the unification effort, and Suhair Atassi, a descendant of a famous political family and a woman who held one of the last open political discussion groups in Damascus. Moustafa al-Sabagh, a businessman who helped the diaspora organize a considerable humanitarian relief effort, was named secretary-general.

As it begins to engage with the opposition group, the international community is expected to follow a pattern of "sequencing" -- steps to ensure that the coalition lives up to its promises as foreign backers offer incentives of increased aid. But such a relationship involves a kind of Catch-22, which damaged the Syrian National Council: The foreign backers want to see the new organization functioning almost like a government-in-exile before they extend it the money and weapons promised, but coalition members said they needed at least some of that aid to function.

For example, the coalition was promised that if it creates the institutions entailed in the agreement, it can assume the Syrian seat in the Arab League. An international conference in Morocco by mid-December will be the first test for wider recognition.

"In a way, the hard work starts now, to agree on all the details and the structures of this coalition," said Maurizio Massari, Italy's Middle East envoy.

A raft of Western and other diplomats, who had been sitting around the hotel lobby over long lunches as the negotiations dragged on, expressed relief that an agreement had been reached. "We have crossed the Rubicon," said Jon Wilks, the British envoy to the Syrian opposition.

An element driving the changes, diplomats said, is the desire of Mrs. Clinton to consolidate the opposition before she leaves office, expected by January. It was Mrs. Clinton who inaugurated the unusually public showdown with the Syrian National Council, announcing in late October that it should be replaced.

Given the distrust and ancient feuds among members of the Syrian opposition, there was no guarantee that the agreement would hold. But the fact that the death toll of the civil war has reached almost 200 Syrians a day was an important factor. As a reminder of that, the Qataris decorated the massive meeting hall with huge pictures of Syrians, some wounded, standing in the rubble of their homes and neighborhoods.

"The people meeting here and serving the revolution with negotiations should go inside and bow to the people serving the revolution with their blood," said Adnan Rahmoun, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army who slipped out of Idlib to attend the meeting. The agreement "meets the aspirations of the Syrian people," he said.

But not all activists were convinced.

"Even the Baath Party itself is great when you read its program," said Omar Badran, an activist from northern Syria, referring to Syria's ruling party. "But then you come to the application of it and the reality of it. That's what matters."

Some of the last holdouts said they suspected that the agreement was a sly way for the international community to negotiate with Mr. Assad about a transition to a new government. So one clause in the agreement specifically bars such talks.

That would seem to put the emphasis on a military solution to the crisis. But one aim of Western capitals is to create an opposition that has more of a critical mass to put pressure on the Assad government to stop fighting. In Geneva in June, at least some key countries -- the United States, Britain and France -- signed off on an agreement that speaks to a negotiated transition.

Over all, the coalition broadens the opposition's base, with officials saying it represents about 90 percent of opposition groups, up from an estimated 70 percent behind the old council. It is to include an assembly of up to 60 members, with major opposition figures filling at least nine seats. Up to five are reserved for Alawites, a crucial constituency because they are from the same Shiite Muslim minority as President Assad and the core of the military. The Muslim Brotherhood officially has only one seat.

Those who helped negotiate the agreement said that they were keenly aware of the failings of the Syrian National Council, and that the reality of Syria would make this experience different.

"There is a realization that the situation inside Syria is reaching a point of no return," said Yaser Tabbara, a Chicago lawyer who helped negotiate the coalition agreement. "This whole situation of controlled chaos cannot be sustained."

Hala Droubi contributed reporting.

Correction: November 11, 2012, Sunday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the British envoy to the Syrian opposition. It is Jon Wilks, not John Wilkes.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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