Syrians from a broad spectrum of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad meeting in Doha indicated late on Thursday they were close to agreeing a government-in-waiting.
“We hope we can reach an agreement tomorrow... after the (main exiled opposition group) the Syria National Council has succeeded in selecting a new leadership,” veteran opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh said on Thursday.
According to participants, all the delegates agreed on a plan for the way forward except the SNC, which insisted on a day's delay in order to complete its leadership changes.
The mooted plan foresees the formation of a unified opposition structure that would allow co-ordinated military action against the regime, as well as humanitarian aid and the administration of zones under their control, they said.
Ahmed Ben Helli, deputy head of the Arab League which is brokering the meeting with Qatar, told reporters that delegates had been urged to overcome the sharp divides that have dogged their efforts to unseat Assad.
“The opposition is urged to agree on a leading body which would have credibility among the Syrian people and the international community,” he said.
His comments were echoed by Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani who, on opening the meeting, called on Assad's opponents to “unify their ranks and positions and to prioritise the interests of their nation and people over their own personal interests.”
Syrian rights activist Suhair Atassi stressed the need for “a single executive to lead our revolution.”
“The blood of Syrians is more precious than the dividing up of posts and quotas,” she said.
Burhan Ghalioun, former leader of the exiled SNC, told reporters earlier that the atmosphere was “positive” and that “failure is forbidden.”
Washington wants the opposition to reshape into a widely representative government-in-exile, while opposition leaders say such a body could be sited outside the country or in zones of Syria now under the control of armed rebels.
Representatives from a number of countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are attending the meeting alongside Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani.
The SNC elected a new Islamist-dominated 41-member secretariat overnight - after being criticised for not being representative enough - but must still choose an executive and its president.
Turkey, which has repeatedly called on Assad to step aside, was represented at the talks by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu while former premier Riad Hijab, a leading dissident who defected in August, was also attending and said he was “optimistic” of reaching a deal.
Also among delegates is Rima Flayhan, representing the Local Coordination Committees, made up of youth groups inside the country that have been at the vanguard of the uprising.
Before travelling to Doha on Wednesday, Arab League chief Arabi said that preparations must start for a transitional government to be ready when “there are changes on the ground” in Syria.
But in an indication it is reluctant to relinquish the cloak of leadership, the SNC has insisted that the “only body that can form a transitional government is a general national congress bringing together all political opposition forces, in which the SNC would hold the biggest share.”
The SNC position appears to challenge an initiative proposed by prominent dissident Riad Seif, and reportedly backed by the United States, that the SNC be given only 15 of 50 seats in the new group to make room for activists from inside Syria.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week called the SNC unrepresentative of opposition forces on the ground and said it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”
The SNC - which was set up six months after the uprising against the Assad regime erupted in March 2011 - has in return accused Washington of undermining the revolt and “sowing the seeds of division.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 37 000 people have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, first as a protest movement and then an armed rebellion after the regime cracked down on demonstrations. - Sapa-AFP