SYRIAN opposition leaders have struck a hard-won deal under intense international pressure to form a broad, new coalition to prepare for the fall of president Bashar al-Assad.
Delegates, who had struggled for days in the Qatari capital Doha to find the unity their Western and Arab backers have long urged, yesterday said the new body would ensure a voice for religious and ethnic minorities and for the rebels fighting on the ground, who have complained of being overlooked by exiled dissident groups.
Activist preacher Moaz al-Khatib was elected to head the new opposition umbrella group last night. Influential businessman Riad Seif, who proposed the coalition, was elected as deputy president along with Suhair al-Atassi, a well-known female activist.
Diplomats and officials from the US and Qatar have particularly been pressing the Syrian National Council (SNC), whose leaders mostly live abroad, to drop fierce objections to joining a wider body.
“An initial deal has been signed. A final formulation has been agreed and signed,” Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, a delegate for the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, said.
Delegates said there would be specific representation for women and ethnic Kurds as well as for Christians and Alawites, the religious minority to which Mr Assad belongs and from which he has drawn much of the leadership of his security forces.
Some delegates had to refer back to leaders who were absent: “Everybody agreed to sign,” said Bassem Said Ishak of the SNC. “But the Kurds need 48 hours to get approval from their leadership.”
Mr al-Khatib will automatically become the focal point for opposition activities in a rapidly developing conflict in which Washington and its allies have been concerned that a sudden collapse of Mr Assad’s rule could see anti-Western militants seize control of a large and pivotal country at the heart of the Middle East.
The SNC, which elected its own new leader, George Sabra, on Friday, had lost the confidence of Washington and other powers.
In marathon talks that lasted into the early hours of yesterday in Doha, the SNC had threatened to pull out of the initiative altogether. Qatar’s prime minister and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates came personally to try to persuade them, insisting that a deal would secure international backing.
“The SNC agreed only under pressure. They only want to monopolise representing the revolution,” one source at the meetings said.
Under the agreement outlined in Doha, the SNC will be among groups to have seats in an assembly of 55 to 60 members under a president, two deputies and a secretary general.
SNC member Wael Merza said a number of consensus candidates were already likely to gain seats. These included leftist Haytham al-Maleh, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Bayanouni, independent Islamists Munzer al-Khatib and AbdulKareem Bakkar and a noted opposition activist, Suhair al-Atassi.
Mr Merza said the Kurdish National Council and a prominent Alawite, Munzer Makhous, would have places on the assembly, as would local representatives of Syria’s 14 provinces.
Delegates said the coalition would try to form a ten-member transitional government in the coming weeks – along the lines of Libya’s Transitional National Council, which was formed during last year’s uprising and took power when Muammar Gaddafi fell.