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Cairo - Syria's new opposition coalition held its first full meeting on Wednesday to discuss forming a transitional government but disagreements broke out at the outset, showing that President Bashar al-Assad's foes remain deeply divided.
A transitional government is crucial to win effective Arab and Western support for the 20-month revolt against Assad, and would bolster the opposition as a democratic alternative to decades of autocratic rule in Syria.
The 60 or so delegates, chosen after talks in Qatar this month, are meeting in Cairo ahead of a gathering of the Friends of Syria, a grouping of dozens of nations that had pledged mostly non-military backing for the revolt but who are worried by the influence of Islamists in the opposition.
After the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first major opposition grouping formed in Istanbul last year that became dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, won scant international support, a Western and Gulf backed effort produced the new coalition earlier this month.
Britain, France and Gulf countries have recognised the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
However, the SNC has up to 27 members in the new coalition and a dispute broke out when the meeting started as the council tried to increase its share, delegates at the meeting said, as talks continued into the night to try to find a solution.
“This is not a salad you mix and add to at whim. The future of Syria is at stake and the Brotherhood is pushing more of its hawks into the coalition, although it already has half of the seats,” said one delegate.
He pointed to many non-coalition members who attended the meeting, or were present in the Cairo Hotel where the conference is taking place. Most were members of the Brotherhood or close to the group, which bore the brunt of a bloody repression by Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s.
“The problem is bigger than the Brotherhood issue. We do seem to be able to overcome a tribal quota mentality. It is just delaying discussing the serious issues of forming a government and responding to the international community,” said another delegate.
One SNC member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “A compromise is being hammered out, but we still have to agree on the internal regulations of the coalition before we can proceed to address the major political challenges.”
Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'a Islam that has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s, has painted the opposition as Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda followers and presented himself as the last guarantor for an undivided Syria.
The coalition's head, Damascus preacher Mouaz Alkhatib, has repeatedly rejected sectarianism, but is being increasingly seen as a religious figure who is respected inside Syria and an interlocutor with outside powers, rather than a hands-on leader.
“Most of the talking so far has been done by Riad Seif and Mustafa Sabbagh. Alkhatib barely said anything,” one delegate said.
Seif, a long time democracy campaigner and a former political prisoner, is one of two coalition vice presidents. Sabbagh, the coalition's general secretary, is a businessman close to the Brotherhood.
The several-day conference will also select committees to manage aid and communications, a process that is developing into a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secular members and independent Islamists on the other.
“The objective is to name the prime minister for a transitional government, or at least have a list of candidates ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting,” said Suhair al-Atassi, the other vice president.
Atassi is only one of three female members of the coalition, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies account for around 40 to 45 percent.
Rivalries have also intensified between the opposition in exile and rebels on the ground, where the death toll has reached 40 000.
The rebels have become an increasingly formidable fighting force on the ground and the new coalition has given rise to hopes that Assad's enemies can set aside their differences and focus on securing international support to remove him.
“We have ideological differences with the coalition, but it will achieve its mission if it brings us outside military help,” said Abu Nidal Mustafa, from Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist rebel unit in Damascus.
Liaison between the coalition and rebels has been assigned to former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the highest ranking official to defect since the revolt, coalition sources said.
His name is also being touted as a possible prime minister but his history in Assad's Baath Party could exclude him.
Another possible contender is Asaad Mustafa, a respected former agriculture minister under Assad's late father. Mustafa, who now lives in Kuwait, left the country decades ago after protesting against Hafez's policies.
Atassi said that major figures had been overlooked in the new coalition, such as veteran campaigners Aref Dalila, a prominent Alawite, and Fawaz Tello, and that efforts were needed to bring on board the main Kurdish political grouping, the Kurdish National Council, which has stayed away.
She added that, unlike the SNC, the new coalition would work with important figures even if they did not become full members.
She pointed to Adib al-Sheishakly, a grandson of a Syrian president, who had quit the SNC in protest at what he regarded as elections rigged by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sheishakly now works with the coalition on securing aid and economic support and told Reuters that he was confident the new group would not be a repeat of the SNC, partly because Alkhatib would provide a balance between competing groups.
“We have had academics as head of the opposition and they did not manage competing interests well. This is a smaller body and Alkhatib knows how to absorb everyone,” Sheishakly said.
But the coalition already faces a major test. It has not agreed on how to deal with international proposals that envisage a transitional period without requiring Assad to step down, an option deemed unthinkable by opposition groups in Syria. - Reuters