Syria's opposition groups strike unity deal against Assad

Sun Nov 11, 2012 6:42pm EST
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By Rania El Gamal and Regan Doherty

DOHA (Reuters) - 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, U.S. 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 soft-spoken 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 (Shi'ite), Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people," he told reporters.

It remains to be seen whether the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces 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.

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.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said there was "no excuse any more" for foreign governments not to support an opposition whose internal divisions had given many pause.   Continued...

Activist preacher Moaz al-Khatib speaks the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council in Doha November 11, 2012. Moaz al-Khatib was elected as the first leader of a new Syrian opposition umbrella group that hopes to win international recognition and prepare for a post-Assad Syria, in a poll counted before reporters on Sunday. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous