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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs