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Middle east

Popular preacher to head new Syria opposition coalition

Video by Yuka ROYER

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-11-12

Syrian opposition leaders struck a hard-won deal on Sunday under intense international pressure to form a new coalition to oppose President Bashar al-Assad, choosing popular Muslim cleric Mouaz al-Khatib (pictured) to head the body.

Syria’s fractious opposition finally put aside fierce arguments to rally behind a new leader within a new coalition that its Western and Arab backers hope can topple Bashar al-Assad and take over the country.

After days of wrangling in Qatar under constant cajoling by exasperated Arab, US and other officials, representatives of groups including rebel fighters, veteran dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities agreed on Sunday to join a new assembly that can form a government-in-exile. They unanimously elected reformist Damascus cleric Mouaz al-Khatib as its president.

Khatib, a preacher who was once imam of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, immediately called on soldiers to quit the Syrian army and on all sects to unite.

“We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili [Shiite], Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” he told reporters.

But it remains to be seen whether the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) can overcome the mutual suspicions and in-fighting that have weakened the 20-month-old drive to end four decades of rule by President Assad’s family.

FRANCE 24 correspondent for Turkey, Jasper Mortimer, reported from Doha on Sunday that while the SNC had finally agreed to the deal, they had expressed their reluctance to join forces only hours beforehand. “The SNC isn’t prepared to quietly fade away,” he said. “Today, its new leader, George Sabra, told us that the SNC is the main opposition body and not prepared to meld itself into another organisation.”

Foreign backing

But for allies who see it emulating Libya’s Transitional National Council, the deal was welcome on a day when Israel fired a missile after a Syrian mortar bomb hit the Golan Heights and Assad’s air force strafed along Turkey’s border.

“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,” said Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim of Qatar, an important supporter of the rebels.

WHO'S WHO

Ziad Majed, professor of Middle Eastern University of Paris, told FRANCE 24 on Sunday that the move to elect al-Khatib would make it difficult for foreign powers to ignore the Syrian uprising. “So far the international community has always said it needed a unified opposition in order to support them logistically or recognise it as a kind of transitional government,” he said. “But now they don’t have any more justification for delaying their support of the opposition”.

The United States had also strongly promoted the plan for the Doha meeting to unite the various factions and, notably, subsume the previously ineffectual Syrian National Council into a wider body that would be more inclusive of minorities from a country of great ethnic and religious diversity.

France, a vocal backer of the rebels and which once ruled Syria, hailed the deal. “France will work with its partners to secure international recognition of this new entity as the representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement in which he called the Assad government “the criminal regime in Damascus”.

Eric Chevalier, the former French ambassador to Syria, described the step as an “important one for a unified opposition and for a credible alternative to Bashar al-Assad's regime,” adding the importance of the SNC as a part of the coalition. “But there is obviously a lot to do,” he told FRANCE 24 in an interview Sunday. “The Doha meeting is not a magic wand to change the Syrian crisis”.

Stalemate

Twenty months after street demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring drew a military response from Assad, his enemies hope a more cohesive opposition can break a stalemate in the civil war and win more military and diplomatic support from allies who have been wary of the influence of anti-Western militants, some of them linked to al Qaeda.

While there has been renewed talk in Turkey and elsewhere of providing some sort of no-fly zones or other protection for refugees and the lightly armed rebels facing Assad’s air force, Western governments have shown little appetite for new military ventures in such a complex Arab state.

And Russia and China, which have blocked previous moves against Assad in the United Nations Security Council, are unlikely swiftly to alter positions which call for dialogue with Assad and view opposition groups as being in thrall to the West.

Regional power Iran, in whose Shiite brand of Islam Assad’s Alawite minority has its religious roots, remains firmly behind the president in a conflict which pits him against majority Sunni Muslims supported by Iran’s Sunni Arab adversaries.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2012-11-12

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