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Syria's new opposition coalition seeks recognition

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 12 Nov 2012 14:46 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Assad's divided foes forge new coalition, seek recognition

* Jets strike near Turkey; Israel, Syria trade fire in Golan

* Coalition's leader is reformist Muslim preacher

By Rania El Gamal and Regan Doherty

DOHA, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Syria's new opposition leadership, painfully forged under Arab and Western pressure, set out on Monday to gather recognition and wider backing for the struggle to take over the country from President Bashar al-Assad.

Violence flared again on the Turkish border and the line separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, underscoring how the conflict is spilling into the region.

Reformist Damascus cleric Mouaz Alkhatib flew to Cairo to seek the Arab League's blessing for the new assembly that unanimously elected him as its leader the day before.

Alkhatib, 50, jailed several times for criticising Assad, fled into exile this year. He has long promoted a liberal Islam tolerant of Syria's Christian, Alawite and other minorities.

"The first step towards recognition will take place at the Arab League," he told a news conference in Doha. The body would then seek endorsement from Assad's Arab and Western foes in the "Friends of Syria" group and from the U.N. General Assembly.

Russia, which with China has foiled U.N. action on Syria and views Assad's opponents as pawns of the West, urged the new body to negotiate and to reject outside meddling.

Asked if China recognised the new coalition, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on all parties to initiate "a political transition process guided by the Syrian people".

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most Arab League members want Assad removed, although some, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria, take a more neutral stance on Syria, where violence raged on.

BORDER BOMBING

Israeli tanks fired shells into Syria and scored "direct hits" in response to a Syrian mortar round that struck the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said.

It was the second time in two days that Israel has responded to what it said was errant Syrian fire. On Sunday the military said it had a fired a "warning shot" across the disengagement line, while on Monday it said it had fired back at "the source".

Syria and Israel have not fought over the Golan since the 1973 Middle East conflict, but are still formally at war.

At the northern end of the country, Syrian jets and helicopters attacked the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, with some bombs landing just metres (yards) from the Turkish border, sending scores of civilians fleeing into Turkey.

A Reuters reporter on the border said one warplane flew right along the border and appeared to stray across it at one point, as bombs sent up plumes of black smoke.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 people, including seven Islamist militants, had been killed in the air strikes on Ras al-Ain, which fell to rebels on Thursday during an advance into Syria's mixed Arab and Kurdish northeast.

Another opposition group put the Ras al-Ain death toll at 16. The pro-opposition Observatory, which tracks the violence from Britain, said 140 people were killed in Syria on Sunday. More than 38,000 people have been killed since March last year.

Turkey, whose border security worries were heightened by a sudden influx of 9,000 refugees within 24 hours last week, has consulted its NATO allies about possibly deploying Patriot surface-to-air missiles to deter Syria's air force.

Such a move could be a prelude to enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, although Western powers have fought shy of this.

Riad Seif, a respected Syrian dissident who proposed the new opposition body, said no such military intervention was needed.

"We will protect ourselves by owning developed weapons and networks of defence missiles," he said, citing what he said was a promise by the Friends of Syria to provide "methods" to counter shelling and air strikes by Assad's forces.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Prague that the alliance would "do what it takes to defend Turkey", without referring specifically to Patriot missiles.

After days of wrangling in Qatar, Syrian politicians, rebels and representatives of ethnic and religious minorities finally laid aside their disputes and, under U.S. and Qatari pressure, agreed to form the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, as a prelude to a government-in-exile.

INCLUSIVE APPROACH

Alkhatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, called on Syrian soldiers to desert and all sects to unite.

"We demand freedom for every Sunni, Alawi, Ismaili, Christian, Druze, Assyrian ... and rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people," the soft-spoken preacher said.

It is unclear whether the Coalition can succeed where the exile Syrian National Council (SNC) failed in overcoming the mutual suspicions and in-fighting that have weakened the nearly 20-month-old drive to end four decades of Assad family rule.

"This is a significant step forward, because they finally seem to be forging a more broadly-based platform that includes the SNC but without the SNC taking the lion's share," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Brookings Center.

He said military councils fighting inside Syria should be plugged into the new political structure as a way of encouraging coordinated international support for the uprising.

"We need a unified channel of support," he said. "The United States still seems hesitant about training and arming the opposition, and I believe this is a mistake, because the U.S. has the capacity to do it more so than anyone else."

Qatar said recognition for a temporary Syrian government would allow it to seek weapons from abroad.

Washington, which promoted the Doha unity talks, hailed the outcome, promising to support the Syrian National Coalition "as it charts a course toward the end of Assad's bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future...".

Assad, whose Alawite minority is rooted in Shi'ite Islam, has support from Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite allies, but has few friends among the region's Sunni-led nations.

With Syria enduring a bloody military stalemate almost 20 months after peaceful protests first erupted, Assad's opponents hope a more cohesive opposition can turn the tide, winning more military and diplomatic support from allies wary of the growing role of Islamist militants, some of them linked to al Qaeda.

"For the first time, there are credible multinational pledges to support the Syrian revolution, politically and logistically," said London-based Syria analyst Rima Allaf.

"With the promise of real weapons, the different groups of the Free Syrian Army are more likely to regroup under a unified opposition and command, as it is to their benefit."

She said success for the new opposition body could make the position of Russia and China irrelevant. "Their direct support of Assad may continue, perhaps until the stakes change and they see no more benefit to holding on to a losing side."

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