January 5, 2015 / 7:39 AM / 3 years ago

Western-backed Syrian opposition body elects new leadership

Khaled Khoja, a Syrian National Council (SNC) member, attends the Syrian Business Forum in Doha June 6, 2012.Mohammed Dabbous

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syria's Western-backed political opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has elected a new presidential committee and a president widely seen as free of links to any of the body's international sponsors.

Despite having only tenuous links with fighters on the ground and seen as out of touch with the general population, the National Coalition remains one of the main parties in international discussions to find solutions to the almost four-year-old civil war.

Khaled Khoja takes over as president from Hadi al Bahra, who is considered to have close links with Saudi Arabia. Bahra served for one term and did not run for a second but will be in the political committee.

Khoja said it was unlikely the coalition would attend peace talks in Russia this month, describing Moscow as "one of the enemies of the Syrian revolution".

Unlike in previous elections, there was no candidate from the Saudi-backed bloc of the National Coalition, which some said was a signal of the decline in interest of the Gulf state in backing the body.

"(The Saudis) scaled back support. They had nothing to offer the democratic bloc so they didn't put forward a candidate," said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Khoja, a 49-year-old Damascus-born doctor and businessman, won 56 votes out of 106 votes cast at a closed meeting in Istanbul on Sunday. The 111-member body also elected a new secretary general and vice presidents.

The position of vice president reserved for a Kurdish member had not yet been filled, as the Kurdish bloc had not yet presented a new nominee, the National Coalition said.

Reporting by Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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