The Syrian opposition seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad has made further progress towards unity during meetings in Turkey ahead of a key international gathering this week, forming a united military command and announcing an agreement on a joint organizational structure for local administration.
Opposition leaders were also discussing the election of a prime minister and a cabinet to act as a transitional government in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on Sunday, indicating intensifying opposition efforts to put its house in order ahead of the meeting of more than 70 nations in Morocco on Wednesday that could offer recognition to the anti-regime body. An opposition representative, Turkey-based Khaled Khoja, told Today's Zaman that the meeting's results are expected on Monday.
Meeting at a luxury hotel in Turkey's popular holiday resort of Antalya, opposition commanders from all across Syria agreed on Friday to join forces under a united command and elected Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from Assad's army, as its chief of staff. The Syrian opposition hopes the deal will clear the way for more advanced arms from countries that back its struggle to topple Assad.
The pivotal countries present were Qatar, which provides most of the financing for opposition efforts, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey, the New York Times reported, quoting commanders attending the Antalya meeting. Britain and France also sent representatives. “We accepted everything because they promised everything -- even paradise,” Ahmad al-Qanatri, the commander of a military battalion in northern Idlib Province, told the daily of the conference sponsors.
Friday's agreement is perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the anti-Assad elements since they agreed under US pressure to reorganize under a new coalition last month in Doha, formally named as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Countries participating in the Morocco meeting of the Friends of Syria group want to see solid signs that the newly formed coalition is capable of being an alternative to the Syrian government.
Although Turkey, Britain, France and Arab states that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have already recognized the new coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the United States has avoided endorsing the group so far, waiting for the group to achieve further progress in unity.
Recently, there have been reports that the US is considering recognition during or around the Morocco meeting, provided that opposition leaders are able to present their group as a functioning organization.
“We've been looking for them to establish a leadership structure that's clear to everybody, but also discrete committees that can deal with the various issues that they are assuming responsibility for,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said on Thursday. “We don't want to get ahead of the game here.”
In what appears to be a response to the US expectations, nearly 100 members of local administrative councils meeting in İstanbul on Thursday announced a joint organizational structure. The new structure will constitute the basis of the interior and communication ministries in the anticipated transitional government, participants said. The new body will also be in charge of distributing humanitarian aid in a fair manner and it plans to establish security forces to protect official buildings, museums, historical artifacts and oil facilities, Salahaddin Hamdi, one of the participants, was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
FSA role diminishes
A lack of a coherent organization has beset the Syrian opposition since the outset. The new military command hopes to form a united front for the divided fighters trying to topple the Assad government.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose umbrella organization of the fighters, has failed to act like an army, with fighters controlling their own area and coordinating with no one from outside. The role of the FSA has diminished in the new military command. Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who headed the FSA's Military Council, will play no rule in the new structure, while Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syrian Army, will retain a symbolic post, The Associated Press reported.
“They want people who obey orders,” Asaad told the New York Times, adding that foreign powers did not invite him to the Antalya meeting.
"The aim of this meeting was to unify the armed opposition to bring down the regime," an opposition commander from near Damascus who attended the meeting told AP. "It also aims to get the situation under control once the regime falls."
While many of the brigades involved in the fighting are decidedly Islamist in outlook and some have boasted about executing captured soldiers, two of the most extreme groups fighting in Syria were not invited to the Antalya meeting in Turkey or included in the new council. The two groups are Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed deadly suicide bombings and is believed to be linked to al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamic fundamentalist brigade home to many foreign jihadis.
The US administration is reportedly preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.
Many of the groups that did attend the Antalya meeting have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers. They include the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultraconservative Islamist group. Its leader, Ahmed Eissa al-Sheik, told The Associated Press earlier this year that his men had executed five captured government soldiers.
The Antalya meeting was attended by about 500 delegates who elected a 30-member Supreme Military Council, which then unanimously elected Idris as chief of staff.
Representatives of the new military command are expected to meet soon with representatives of the new national coalition.