News / Middle East

Syria Opposition Meets to Find Leader, Show Readiness for Arms

Mustafa Sabbagh (L), Secretary-General of the Syrian National Coalition, and Burhan Ghalioun (R), former President of Syrian National Council, attend a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, July 4, 2013.
Mustafa Sabbagh (L), Secretary-General of the Syrian National Coalition, and Burhan Ghalioun (R), former President of Syrian National Council, attend a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, July 4, 2013.
Reuters
Syria's fractious opposition coalition met on Thursday under pressure to name a new leader and prove to its Western and Arab backers it can be trusted with advanced weapons to beat back a concerted offensive by President Bashar al-Assad.
 
The opposition's inability to unite has made Western countries reluctant to send weapons, even as Assad's forces have seized the initiative in recent months and Washington and its European allies have vowed to aid his enemies.
 
Rebels are under siege in the strategic city of Homs and trying to hold on to swaths of territory across the country, while the opposition in exile has been unable to exert authority on the ground and halt strides toward radical Islamism.
 
The Syrian National Coalition has been without a leader for months after its head quit over disagreement about potential talks with Assad's government. It aims to agree on a new unified leadership at its talks in Istanbul.
 
Coalition insiders say its international backers want to avoid a repeat of a near debacle a month ago when last-minute intervention by senior officials from Turkey and Western and Arab countries was needed to keep it from disintegrating.
 
A new leadership for the body of mainly exiled politicians will also need to show that it can forge stronger links with the activists and rebel fighters inside Syria, the sources said.
 
Senior opposition figures met overnight to agree on a deal that would satisfy the three main players in the coalition: the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organized faction in the political opposition, a Saudi-backed bloc and a wing loyal to secretary general Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman seen as Qatar's pointman.
 
Possible candidates to lead the opposition include Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure well connected with Saudi Arabia, and Sabbagh himself.
 
Sources at the meeting said possible consensus candidates included Ahmed Tumeh al-Khader a veteran opposition figure, and Burhan Ghalioun, a professor based in Paris.
 
Boosting rebel command
 
Destroyed buildings are seen on a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, July 4, 2013.Destroyed buildings are seen on a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, July 4, 2013.
x
Destroyed buildings are seen on a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, July 4, 2013.
Destroyed buildings are seen on a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, July 4, 2013.
More than two years into a war that has killed more than 90,000 people, momentum has shifted in recent months in favor of Assad, especially since he gained the support of fighters from the seasoned Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
 
Western countries opposed to Assad were predicting at the end of last year that the Syrian leader's days were numbered. But they now fear for the survival of the rebellion after Hezbollah fighters helped capture the rebel-held town of Qusair.
 
The West has had to balance its desire to aid the rebels with its worry that the rebellion has become dominated by militant Sunni Islamists, including groups allied to al Qaeda.
 
A senior opposition source in contact with U.S. officials said Washington, as well as French security operatives, were concentrating on supporting rebel units in the province of Aleppo on the border with Turkey, where new anti-tank missiles are helping reverse the military tide.
 
“I think we will be hearing good news from Aleppo soon. No one wants to repeat the weakness in logistics that allowed Hezbollah to take over Qusair and paved the way for the offensive on Homs,” the source said.
 
Saudi Arabia has assumed a central role in backing the opposition and has begun limited delivery of sophisticated weapons to the rebels, with the United States playing a bigger role than before in supervising such shipments to keep weapons out of Islamist hands, diplomats in the region say.
 
“The Americans will have the final say on Saudi support. On the surface, U.S. military pledges are minimal, but indirectly, Washington's role is big,” a Western diplomat said.
 
At the core of Western and Saudi strategy is boosting the Supreme Military Council, a centralized rebel command structure led by defectors from the Syrian army, to claw back Assad's advances and create a counterbalance to militant Islamists.
 
Kamal al-Labwani, a senior member of a liberal bloc of the coalition, said that the opposition has started to build up its military capability through the Supreme Military Council but  Islamists still dominate the battlefield. He said he expected an increase in weapons shipments to rebels, dismissing U.S. and Russian plans for a peace conference, known as Geneva 2.
 
Washington and Moscow, Cold War foes supporting the opposing sides, announced plans for the peace conference in May but never agreed a date for it. Their relations have deteriorated rapidly as momentum on the battlefield swung in favor of Assad and Washington committed to aid the rebels.
 
“Geneva 2 is preparation for more war," Labwani said. "Does anyone seriously think Assad would give up power to a transitional government that would order the army to take its tanks from the streets, release tens of thousands of prisoners and allow demonstrations?”
 
The rebels have been receiving light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for many months, but say they need more sophisticated weapons to defeat Assad, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to counter the government's big air power advantage.
 
The West is wary, because such missiles could be used by militants to threaten civil aviation. Diplomats said the United States is overseeing delivery of Saudi weapons after concern that shoulder-fired missiles sent by Qatar may have been delivered to jihadist fighters.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs