Doha, Qatar • Syrian opposition factions signed a tentative agreement on Sunday to create a unified umbrella organization that could pave the way for long-elusive international diplomatic recognition, as well as more financing and improved military aid from foreign capitals.
After three days of haggling at a luxury hotel here, opposition negotiators agreed to the new coalition and then elected as its president Sheik Maath al-Khatib, the former imam of the historic Ummayad mosque in Damascus and a respected national figure within Syria.
“Today in Doha is the first time the different factions of the Syrian opposition are united in one body,” said Riad Farid Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the highest level defector from the Damascus government. “So we ask the international community to recognize the Syrian opposition as the representative of the Syrians.”
The umbrella organization was designed to subsume the Syrian National Council, a previous attempt at unification that has appeared increasingly marginalized as Syria has descended into civil war. That group’s authority was undercut when it failed to attract sufficient support from key minorities, religious and tribal figures, businessmen — and most important, rebel units conducting the fighting against President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The hope among Western countries is that the new coalition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, can establish itself and give local opposition councils the legitimacy to bring fighters under their authority. That would give an important countervoice to the well-armed jihadist commanders who in many places have set the pace of the fighting and created worries that Islamists will gain a permanent hold.
Before the ink was even dry on the final draft, negotiators were hoping that it would bring them the anti-aircraft missiles they crave to take on Syria’s lethal air force. Both the U.S. and Britain have only offered nonmilitary aid to the uprising.
A similar attempt by the Syrian National Council to supervise the military never jelled — organizers said financing was too haphazard. Eventually foreign governments like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are both financing and arming the rebels, found their own favorite factions to deal with.
Foreign capitals wanted this unification largely so they could coordinate their own efforts and aid through a group of technocrats. Once it receives international recognition, the coalition is supposed to establish a temporary government.