DOHA (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leaders struck a hard-won deal on Sunday under intense international pressure to form a broad, new coalition to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and chose a popular Islamist activist to head the body.
Mouaz al-Khatib, a former imam at the famous Umayyad mosque in Damascus, was voted as president. Riad Seif, who proposed the initiative to form the new group, and female activist Suhair al-Atassi were chosen as deputies.
Delegates, who had struggled for days in the Qatari capital Doha to find the unity their Western and Arab backers have long urged, said the coalition 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.
Khatib, an Islamist moderate who fled Syria earlier this year, is a soft-spoken preacher who reached out to minorities early in the revolt. He once made a speech in the conservative Sunni town of Douma, flanked by a prominent Christian and a well-known Alawite.
Minorities, including Assad’s Alawi sect, have largely backed the authorities during the revolt, fearing that Islamists from the Sunni majority will take over - fears fanned by Assad.
“(Khatib) is from Damascus and is a famous man from there. I think this is a serious step against the regime, and a serious step towards freedom,” said George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council that U.S. and Qatari officials spent last week persuading to accept the creation of a more inclusive new body.
Sabra also praised the choices of Seif and Atassi to the new body, titled Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces: “They are very good representatives of this project. They are activists in our revolution. Most of them have made large sacrifices for the people inside the country.”
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 Assad’s rule could see anti-Western militants benefit from chaos to seize control of a large and pivotal country at the heart of the Middle East.
The new body will seek to become the sole address for military and humanitarian aid to Syria, though the United States has made clear it will not shift from its position of no direct military intervention.
Officials from the United States and Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate whose oil and gas wealth has helped fund the 20-month-old uprising, had lost faith in the SNC, which they saw as disconnected from events on the ground and riven by disputes.
Qatar and Turkey, which has also been at the forefront of international efforts to bring down Assad, issued a call for full international backing for the new body.
“Trust us that we will strive from now on to have this new body recognised completely by all parties... as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim told reporters after Khatib was elected in the Doha Sheraton hotel.
The Arab League is expected to allow the group to take over Syria’s representation on that inter-governmental body - from which Assad was suspended. Efforts to win wider international recognition, including at the United Nations, could follow.
Turkey’s foreign minister said the formation of the National Coalition meant the opposition was no longer divided.
“The friends of Syria... should support this agreement... There is no excuse anymore,” Ahmed Davutoglu said. “All those who support the rightful struggle of the Syrian people should declare clear support for this agreement and be more active.”
Delegates said there would be specific representation for women and ethnic Kurds as well as for Christians and Alawites, but some had not yet fully signed on.
Delegates said Kurdish activists would give their full approval in coming days after consultations but that a third deputy president could be appointed from among the minority.
“Everybody agreed to sign. But the Kurds need 48 hours to get approval from their leadership,” said Bassem Said Ishak, who said Khatib’s Islamist hue would not trouble Western backers.
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, all of whom may be elected later on Sunday. The SNC will have up to 22 seats.
SNC member Wael Merza said a number of consensus candidates were already likely to gain seats, including leftist Haytham al-Maleh, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni and Munzer Makhous, a prominent Alawite from Assad’s sect which has largely backed Assad in an increasingly sectarian conflict.
“We are open to all the real opposition powers that have weight, influence and the same aims as the Coalition to bring down the regime and establish a democratic Syria,” Merza said.
In marathon talks that lasted into the early hours of Sunday in Doha, the SNC had threatened to pull out of the initiative altogether. The Qatari prime minister and United Arab Emirates foreign minister 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 said. “They were given a deadline of 10 a.m. today to either come join or risk it being announced without them.”
The SNC’s leadership repeatedly rejected criticisms over the past week in Doha, saying the body was reforming internally, holding its first leadership election - as opposed to appointing leaders as in the past - and bringing in more youth activists.
But some Council members quit over what they said was Islamist domination of the SNC and the failure of women to win any seats on its general secretariat in voting last week. The Muslim Brotherhood gave its backing to the unity initiative.
Delegates said the coalition would try to form a 10-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.
Rebels have been at the mercy of Assad’s air force, putting them at a critical disadvantage. The conflict has cost more than 38,000 lives and threatens to spill into neighboring countries.
Additional reporting by Regan Doherty; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Stephen Powell