* Objective of meeting to choose a prime minister
* Muslim Brotherhood moves to firm its grip on Syrian
* Head of Coalition rejects sectarianism, but weakened as
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
CAIRO, Nov 28 Syria's new opposition coalition
held its first full meeting on Wednesday to discuss forming a
transitional government but disagreements broke out at the
outset, showing that President Bashar al-Assad's foes remain
A transitional government is crucial to win effective Arab
and Western support for the 20-month revolt against Assad, and
would bolster the opposition as a democratic alternative to
decades of autocratic rule in Syria.
The 60 or so delegates, chosen after talks in Qatar this
month, are meeting in Cairo ahead of a gathering of the Friends
of Syria, a grouping of dozens of nations that had pledged
mostly non-military backing for the revolt but who are worried
by the influence of Islamists in the opposition.
After the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first major
opposition grouping formed in Istanbul last year that became
dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, won scant international
support, a Western and Gulf backed effort produced the new
coalition earlier this month.
Britain, France and Gulf countries have recognised the
coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
However, the SNC has up to 27 members in the new coalition
and a dispute broke out when the meeting started as the council
tried to increase its share, delegates at the meeting said, as
talks continued into the night to try to find a solution.
"This is not a salad you mix and add to at whim. The future
of Syria is at stake and the Brotherhood is pushing more of its
hawks into the coalition, although it already has half of the
seats," said one delegate.
He pointed to many non-coalition members who attended the
meeting, or were present in the Cairo Hotel where the conference
is taking place. Most were members of the Brotherhood or close
to the group, which bore the brunt of a bloody repression by
Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s.
RELIGIOUS FIGURE OR LEADER?
"The problem is bigger than the Brotherhood issue. We do
seem to be able to overcome a tribal quota mentality. It is just
delaying discussing the serious issues of forming a government
and responding to the international community," said another
One SNC member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity,
said: "A compromise is being hammered out, but we still have to
agree on the internal regulations of the coalition before we can
proceed to address the major political challenges."
Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot
of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in Syria since the
1960s, has painted the opposition as Sunni extremists and al
Qaeda followers and presented himself as the last guarantor for
an undivided Syria.
The coalition's head, Damascus preacher Mouaz Alkhatib, has
repeatedly rejected sectarianism, but is being increasingly seen
as a religious figure who is respected inside Syria and an
interlocutor with outside powers, rather than a hands-on leader.
"Most of the talking so far has been done by Riad Seif and
Mustafa Sabbagh. Alkhatib barely said anything," one delegate
Seif, a long time democracy campaigner and a former
political prisoner, is one of two coalition vice presidents.
Sabbagh, the coalition's general secretary, is a businessman
close to the Brotherhood.
The several-day conference will also select committees to
manage aid and communications, a process that is developing into
a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and
secular members and independent Islamists on the other.
"The objective is to name the prime minister for a
transitional government, or at least have a list of candidates
ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting," said Suhair al-Atassi,
the other vice president.
Atassi is only one of three female members of the coalition,
in which the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies account for
around 40 to 45 percent.
Rivalries have also intensified between the opposition in
exile and rebels on the ground, where the death toll has reached
The rebels have become an increasingly formidable fighting
force on the ground and the new coalition has given rise to
hopes that Assad's enemies can set aside their differences and
focus on securing international support to remove him.
"We have ideological differences with the coalition, but it
will achieve its mission if it brings us outside military help,"
said Abu Nidal Mustafa, from Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist rebel
unit in Damascus.
Liaison between the coalition and rebels has been assigned
to former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the highest ranking
official to defect since the revolt, coalition sources said.
His name is also being touted as a possible prime minister
but his history in Assad's Baath Party could exclude him.
Another possible contender is Asaad Mustafa, a respected
former agriculture minister under Assad's late father. Mustafa,
who now lives in Kuwait, left the country decades ago after
protesting against Hafez's policies.
Atassi said that major figures had been overlooked in the
new coalition, such as veteran campaigners Aref Dalila, a
prominent Alawite, and Fawaz Tello, and that efforts were needed
to bring on board the main Kurdish political grouping, the
Kurdish National Council, which has stayed away.
She added that, unlike the SNC, the new coalition would work
with important figures even if they did not become full members.
She pointed to Adib al-Sheishakly, a grandson of a Syrian
president, who had quit the SNC in protest at what he regarded
as elections rigged by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sheishakly now works with the coalition on securing aid and
economic support and told Reuters that he was confident the new
group would not be a repeat of the SNC, partly because Alkhatib
would provide a balance between competing groups.
"We have had academics as head of the opposition and they
did not manage competing interests well. This is a smaller body
and Alkhatib knows how to absorb everyone," Sheishakly said.
But the coalition already faces a major test. It has not
agreed on how to deal with international proposals that envisage
a transitional period without requiring Assad to step down, an
option deemed unthinkable by opposition groups in Syria.