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Fractious Syrian opposition says it has formed a united coalition

November 11, 2012 |  7:09 am

Syrian opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh

BEIRUT -- The deeply divided Syrian opposition said Sunday that its myriad factions had reached an initial agreement to form a new coalition to oversee a push to oust the government of President Bashar Assad.

The new umbrella group, reportedly called the Syrian National Coalition, was unveiled Sunday in the Qatari capital of Doha, where the querulous opposition has been meeting for a week, trying to hash out its many differences.

The purpose of the new alliance is to serve as a kind of government in exile, helping to funnel international aid, organize rebel forces on the ground and build up foreign support for the rebel cause.

Further details are expected to be divulged later Sunday, dissident spokesmen told journalists in Doha.

Some reports suggested that not all opposition groups, including a Kurdish bloc, had signed off on the reported deal.

The United States and other opposition patrons have pressed dissidents to unify into a coherent entity that can work with the international community, with the ultimate aim of ousting Assad.

But the best-known opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has resisted the U.S.-backed unity offensive, fearing its influence would be diminished.

Critics have assailed the council as out of touch with events on the ground in Syria, torn apart by infighting, prone to lavish spending in five-star hotels and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that seeks a major role in a post-Assad Syria.

According to reports from Doha, the Syrian National Council will be subsumed into the new coalition. The breakdown of seats for various factions was not immediately made public.

Opponents of the Assad family’s more than 40-year autocratic rule include a diverse mix that reflects Syria’s varied population. The opposition includes Islamists, secularists, Sunni Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Christians and even Alawites, the Muslim minority sect that includes Assad and many of his top commanders.

Inside Syria, Assad still maintains considerable support, despite an almost 20-month rebellion that has left thousands dead and broad swaths of territory beyond his government's control. Many Syrians fear Assad's fall could unleash the kind of chaos and sectarian bloodletting that convulsed neighboring Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Iraqi strongman in 2003. Assad labels his enemies foreign-backed "terrorists."

Opposition activists are hopeful that a new, more unified coalition will result in foreign allies  delivering caches of heavy weapons to Syria's disparate rebel forces. The opposition has also called for the kind of Western air power that a Western-backed coalition provided last year to Libyan rebels fighting to oust Moammar Kadafi.

The United States says it has not provided lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. Some fear that such weaponry could fall into the hands of militants and Al Qaeda sympathizers, who are among the fragmented rebel forces on the ground in Syria.

Washington has given no indication that it will arm the rebels. But reports have suggested that several Arab states, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya, have provided arms to the Syrian opposition and helped bankroll the rebellion, paying the salaries of rebel fighters and channeling funds to anti-Assad exile factions.

One aim of the exile-based Syrian opposition coalition is to impose a central command structure on the dozens of anti-Assad militias now fighting inside Syria. However, many rebel units reject leadership from outside Syria and respond only to their unit commanders inside the country.

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--Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch

Photo: Veteran Syrian opposition figure and human rights activist Haytham al-Maleh attends the General Assembly of the Syria National Council meeting in Doha, Qatar. Credit: Karim Jaafar / AFP/Getty Images

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