DOHA (Reuters) - Syria’s splintered opposition factions started talks in Qatar on Sunday on a common front to gain international respect and recognition and, crucially, better weapons for their quest to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the first concerted attempt to meld opposition groups based abroad and align them with rebels fighting in Syria, to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed over 32,000 lives, devastated swathes of the major Arab country and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.
Tensions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures based abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united opposition.
Four days of talks in the Qatari capital Doha are anticipated with the goal of overhauling and broadening the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest of the overseas-based opposition groups, from some 300 members to 400.
SNC leaders hoped this would pave the way to a follow-up meeting in Doha on Thursday bringing other opposition factions with the goal of creating an anti-Assad coalition setting aside months of political and personal infighting.
“The main aim is to expand the council to include more of the social and political components. There will be new forces in the SNC,” Abdulbaset Sieda, current leader of the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Doha ahead of the meeting.
He said the meetings will also elect a new executive committee and leader for the SNC, criticised in the past over perceptions of domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United States called last week for an overhaul of the opposition’s leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the SNC and bring in those “in the front lines fighting and dying”.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the meeting in Qatar would be an opportunity to establish a credible opposition.
Internal feuding, a lack of cooperation between leaders abroad and fighters in Syria and the rising clout of autonomous Muslim militants in rebel ranks have deterred Western powers keen to see Assad gone from offering more than moral support.
Influential opposition figure Riad Seif has proposed a structure melding the rebel Free Syrian Army, regional military councils and other insurgent units alongside local civilian bodies and prominent opposition figures.
On Sunday, Seif called for a more active role by the international community to support the opposition.
“The world is watching like it’s a film. Now the world must come to help really and not just make statements. We need real help, we need to be protected by air forces,” he told reporters.
Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Seif said in an interview with Reuters last week, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and “decide the battle”.
Western diplomats based in the Middle East said Washington was supporting an initiative by Seif.
But opposition sources said the success of Seif’s initiative would depend partly on the degree to which he could resist pressure from the SNC to pack the new assembly proposed by Seif with its members.
“We did not say we are rejecting it (Seif’s initiative) and we did not accept it. We are talking,” Sieda said.
“We welcome a consultative meeting for the powers on the ground and the political factions in the Syrian opposition... the SNC remains the main power in the Syrian opposition particularly after this expansion.”
Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said the assembly proposed by Seif would complement the SNC structure but not replace it. Ghalioun said the SNC backed “creating a circle that brings the opposition parties together and works as one team.”
“We will succeed if we make (the Seif initiative) an operation room for the opposition,” he said late on Saturday in Doha, adding that the SNC has 15 seats in the assembly proposed by Seif, and want to increase that to around 22 seats.
Seif’s proposal would suffer if it were perceived as nothing more than a replacement for the SNC, he added.
Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Amman; Editing by Mark Heinrich