Syrian opposition strikes unity deal
Syrian opposition leaders struck a hard-won deal today 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, 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.
Some details remain outstanding, including who will head the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and the final assent of some leaders not present in Doha.
Diplomats and officials from the United States and Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate whose oil and gas wealth has helped fund the 20-month-old uprising, 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, told reporters.
Delegates said there would be specific representation for women and ethnic Kurds as well as for Christians and Alawites, the religious minority to which Dr Assad belongs and from which he has drawn much of the leadership of his security forces.
It was not entirely clear whether full agreement had been reached, however.
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."
The Coalition's president, once chosen, 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 Dr 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 SNC, which elected its own new leader, George Sabra, on Friday, had lost the confidence of Washington and other powers, who saw it as unable to provide overall direction for the anti-Assad forces and riven with personal disputes.
In marathon talks that lasted into the early hours of today 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. "They were given a deadline of 10am today to either come join or risk it being announced without them."
Delegates said privately that Riad Seif, an influential businessman and SNC member who first presented the US-backed unity initiative had been a possible candidate to head the body. But he has said he is unwell and not interested in the post.
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.
Anti-Assad protests began nearly 20 months ago, meeting a violent response which led to a conflict that has cost more than 38,000 lives and threatens to spill into neighbouring countries.
The armed uprising, in which Islamist militants have come increasingly to the fore, lacks weaponry to counter the Syrian military's air power, tanks and artillery. Yet Dr Assad's forces have failed to crush the rebels, who hold swathes of territory.
The SNC hopes it can squeeze guarantees from international backers for more military aid or a no-fly zone to protect "liberated areas" in return for agreeing to join the new body. Forms of international recognition have been raised in the negotiations so far as an enticement to sign.
But Washington rejects overt military involvement in Syria - although some in the opposition hope US president Barack Obama might shift ground after he was re-elected this week.