August 8, 2013 / 3:48 PM / in 6 years

Syrian opposition visits Deraa in challenge to Assad

AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan let a Syrian opposition leader cross into Syria from its territory for the first time on Thursday, signalling greater backing from an Arab ally for the opposition battling against President Bashar al-Assad.

Ahmad Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, attends a French Parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly in Paris, July 23, 2013. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition crossed into Syria to attended Eid al-Fitr holiday prayers at a mosque in the contested border province of Deraa.

The brief visit of Ahmad Jarba to Tel Shehab, which would likely have required approval from Jordanian authorities, was seen by Syrian opposition sources as reflecting a shift in Amman towards more public support for Assad’s opponents.

Fearing that Assad could be replaced by Islamist militants, Jordan has maintained diplomatic and security channels open with Syrian authorities while backing units of the moderate rebel Free Syria Army operating in Deraa, birthplace of the uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.

Washington and its Arab allies are hoping to build up the capabilities of the Free Syria Army and the Syrian National Coalition umbrella organisation to act as a counterweight to Islamist rebel groups like the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

Jarba was accompanied by Ahmad Nima, head of the Jordanian- and Western-backed Deraa Military Council, on his visit to Tel Shehab, where thousands of Syrians have been stranded for months after Jordan all but shut its border to refugees.

He inspected food parcels and greeted refugees at a rundown school, including a woman from the city of Homs tending to her wounded daughter, video footage taken by his aides showed.

“There are difficult times but they will pass. We are your servants,” Jarba told the women. “Victory will come, God willing, to Damascus and Homs and in Hama.”

The previous day Jarba led a Syrian National Coalition delegation in talks with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh, the first publicised meeting of its kind.

Jordan’s news agency Petra said Jarba, who has been touring Europe and the Gulf to drum up military and humanitarian support, briefed Joudeh on the trip.

A member of the delegation said the meeting centred on easing Jordanian restrictions on refugee entry and discussed a stalled U.S.-Russian proposal for a peace conference in Geneva.

Neither rebels nor the government has shown signs of compromise needed to reach an agreed political transition in Syria, and no date has been set for long-delayed talks to end a two-and-a-half year old civil war that has killed 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

“The Jordanians support our view that we cannot go to Geneva unless there is a real chance it will produce a transitional government with full powers. Otherwise the coalition will lose all credibility with the Syrian people,” the source said.

Jarba, son of a tribal leader from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, was elected in a close ballot as the new president of the coalition last month, edging a Qatari-backed candidate.

Jordan has effectively stopped allowing Syrian refugees in the last three months, adding to the hardship of many thousands seeking to flee the country, aid workers and diplomats say.

The kingdom, a U.S. ally, had received hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees but says international assistance to help host them has not been forthcoming.

Editing by Peter Graff

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