Six Gulf states have recognised a new Syrian opposition coalition as the country’s “legitimate representative”.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was unveiled in Doha on Sunday, aimed at uniting the various factions seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Western nations and Turkey welcomed the coalition’s creation.
The 22-member Arab League later recognised the group as the “legitimate representative” of Syria’s opposition.
Meeting in Cairo late on Monday, Arab League foreign ministers released a statement calling on other anti-Assad groups to join the opposition coalition.
However the group stopped short of giving it full recognition as the representative of the Syrian people.
In encouraging the opposition to unify, Western diplomats say, their intent is not to railroad the rebels into negotiating with Bashar al-Assad and his regime, as some oppositionists feared.
What they have in mind is to force Mr Assad and his top 10 or so associates to leave – a process they describe as “decapitation”.
The opposition would then be expected to negotiate a peaceful transition with what was left of the regime, whether or not they were deemed to have “blood on their hands”.
The most obvious flaw in that argument is of course that Mr Assad is, at least at this stage, not minded to co-operate and flit the coop.
Some members of the League, such as Iraq and Lebanon, were still “not fully supportive of the Syrian revolt”, and are reluctant to delegitimise Mr Assad, an unnamed Arab League official told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Israel’s military said its tanks had scored “direct hits” on Syrian artillery units after Syrian mortar shells fell near an Israeli army post on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for the second consecutive day.
A complaint had been filed with UN forces operating in the area, it added, after what correspondents described as the most serious episode between the two countries since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
Elsewhere, Syrian government aircraft bombed the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey.
Both jets and helicopters targeted the town, sending civilians fleeing into the Turkish settlement of Ceylanpinar. Casualties were reported.
Nato has said it will do what it takes to protect and defend Turkey – one of the alliance’s member states.
Over the last week, there has been some suggestion it might supply Turkey with Patriot surface-to-air missiles in order to help secure the border.
“Turkey can rely on Nato solidarity, we have more plans in place to defend and protect Turkey, our ally, if needed,” Secretary General Anders Rasmussen told reporters in Prague, without elaborating.
This is an important milestone in forming a broad and representative Opposition that reflects the full diversity of the Syrian people”
Observers and activists estimate that more than 36,000 people have been killed in the long-running uprising against President Assad. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
“The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) declares its recognition of the Syrian national coalition… as the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people,” Abdulatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s secretary general, said in a statement.
The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
Western and regional powers have in recent weeks put pressure on a hitherto fractious Syrian opposition to create a unified, credible body that could become a conduit for all financial and possibly military aid.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), the previously dominant opposition umbrella group which is widely viewed as divided and ineffective, will control 22 of the 60 seats on the National Coalition’s leadership council.
The new coalition’s president will be Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who fled Syria this year.
US state department spokesman Mark Toner the US was looking forward “to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule”.
- Born 1960
- Son of long-standing imam of Damascus’s Grand Umayyad mosque
- Studied applied geophysics
- Imam of Grand Umayyad mosque
- Detained by Syrian military intelligence
- Fled Syria for Cairo in July 2012
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the move was a “milestone in forming a broad and representative opposition that reflects the full diversity of the Syrian people”.
Western efforts to support the Syrian opposition have been hampered by Russia and China, which have blocked three UN Security Council resolutions seeking to pressure Mr Assad to end the conflict.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said the international community had “no excuse any more” not to support the opposition.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said only that his country supported a political transition “led by the Syrian people as soon as possible.”
Russia said the National Coalition should seek “a peaceful resolution of the conflict by Syrians themselves, without external interference, through dialogue and negotiations”.
Mr Khatib, 52, left for Cairo in July after several periods of detention by the Syrian authorities for criticising President Assad. He is seen as a moderate.
“We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawite, Ismaili (Shia), Christian, Druze, Assyrian … and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people,” he said after being elected president of the National Coalition.
The group, formed after a week of talks in Doha, will have two vice-presidents – prominent dissident Riad Seif and the leading female secular activist, Suhair al-Atassi.
Delegates said the leadership council would include representation for ethnic Kurds, Christians, Alawites and women. There will also be a military council that will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army (FSA).