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Syria’s new opposition leader stirs hope

Mouaz al-Khatib was elected as the first leader of a new Syrian opposition umbrella group on Sunday.


Syria's fractious opposition finally put aside fierce arguments on Sunday 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 to join a new assembly that can form a government-in-exile. They then unanimously elected a reformist Damascus cleric, Mouaz al-Khatib, as its president.

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 Mr. al-Assad's family.

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

"We will strive from now on to have this new body recognized 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.

The United States had also strongly promoted the plan for the Doha meeting to unite the various factions and, notably, subsume the hitherto 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."

After long arguments over whether and how to form the new opposition assembly, the speed with which a consensus emerged within hours to ensure that Mr. Khatib stood unopposed for the post of president was notable and may encourage its supporters.

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His deputies will be Riad Seif, a veteran dissident who had proposed the U.S.-backed initiative to set up an umbrella group uniting groups inside and outside Syria, and Suhair al-Atassi, one of the relatively few women with a leading role. Delegates said a third deputy may yet be named from among ethnic Kurds.

Businessman Mustafa Sabbagh was elected general secretary.

Mr. Khatib, 50, was once imam of the celebrated and ancient Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and was also jailed several times for criticizing Mr. al-Assad. He finally fled into exile this year.

Twenty months after street demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring drew a military response from the Assad regime, 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.

In the Golan Heights, Israeli troops fired a guided missile into Syria on Sunday in a potent "warning shot" after mortar fire from fighting between Syrian troops and rebels hit the Israeli-occupied territory for the second time in four days. Israel Radio said it was the first direct engagement of the Syrian military on the Golan since the war of 1973.

Interviewed by Israel's Army Radio, Defence Minister Ehud Barak was asked about public warnings he and another senior official issued to Assad last week to rein in Syrian sweeps against rebels near the Golan.

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"The message has certainly been relayed. To tell you confidently that no shell will fall? I cannot. If a shell falls, we will respond," Mr. Barak said, without elaborating.

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