Syrian National Council leader George Sabra. Photo Reuters
Syrian opposition leaders have struck a hard-won deal
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
"The evening session will be for electing the president of
the body and his deputy," he added.
Delegates said there would be specific representation for
women and ethnic Kurds as well as for Christians and
Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs and
from which he has drawn much of the leadership of his
It was not entirely clear whether full agreement had been
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
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 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
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 Sunday
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
"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 10 a.m. 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
U.S.-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, all of
whom may be elected later on Sunday. People close to Seif
said the SNC will have 14 seats but SNC sources said their
group expected 20.
SNC member Wael Merza said a number of consensus candidates
were already likely to gain seats. These included leftist
Haytham al-Maleh, the Muslim Brotherhood's Bayanouni,
independent Islamists Munzer al-Khatib and AbdulKareem Bakkar
and a noted opposition activist, Suhair al-Atassi.
Merza said the Kurdish National Council and a prominent
Alawite, Munzer Makhous, would have places on the assembly,
as would local representatives of Syria's 14 provinces.
"We are open to all the real opposition powers that have
weight, influence and the same aims as the Coalition to bring
down the regime and establish a democratic Syria," Merza told
Reuters. "It is not a closed club."
The SNC's leadership repeatedly rejected criticisms over the
past week in Doha, saying the body was reforming internally,
holding its first leadership election - as opposed to
appointing leaders as in the past - and bringing in more
But some Council members quit over what they said was
Islamist domination of the SNC and the failure of women to
win any seats on its general secretariat in voting last week.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood - which has around 25 percent
of the SNC general secretariat - and other Islamists allied
to them, gave support to Seif's unity initiative.
Delegates said the coalition would try to form a 10-member
transitional government in the coming weeks - along the lines
of Libya's Transitional National Council, which was formed
during last year's uprising and took power when Muammar
The Arab League is expected to allow the group to take over
Syria's representation on that inter-governmental body - from
which Assad was suspended. Efforts to win wider international
recognition, including at the United Nations, could follow.
The SNC had sought guarantees that such international
recognition should come first before agreeing to form the new
coalition. Its new leader, Sabra, had said on Saturday that
foreign powers should focus on providing arms to rebels
rather than prodding the SNC to submerge itself in a new
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador for Syria, told SNC members
bluntly last week that they should forget dreams of U.S.
military intervention in President Barack Obama's second
Rebels have been at the mercy of Assad's air force, putting
them at a critical strategic disadvantage. Protests for
democratic reform broke out 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