Syrian opposition groups reach unity agreement

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DOHA, Qatar -- 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 Mr. 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 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.

Mr. Khatib said opposition fighters are "searching for freedom," claiming that if any carried out improper acts, it was because of the "regime's brutality."

He said the Syrian rebels will avoid acts of revenge in the future, noting that many security officers are "honorable people whom we call them upon to defect from the corrupt regime."

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, "This new body will help up mobilize more international support and resources for the Syrian opposition."

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."

Mr. 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. He was once the preacher of Damascus' historic Ummayad Mosque and heads the Islamic Modernization Group.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Seif, 66, was a member of the so-called "Damascus Declaration" group -- a coalition of pro-democracy activists that came into existence after Mr. Assad came to power in 2000. Mr. 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.

Ms. Atassi comes from an influential family from the central city of Homs. She has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Assad for years and was arrested days after the uprising began while taking part in an anti-government demonstration 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. All opposition groups and figures taking part in the Doha meeting rejected any dialogue with Mr. Assad's regime.

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