High stakes as Syrian opposition tries to form government

CAIRO Tue Nov 27, 2012 11:43pm GMT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Syria's new opposition coalition will hold its first full meeting on Wednesday to discuss forming a transitional government crucial to win effective Arab and Western support for the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

The 60 or so delegates, chosen after marathon talks in Qatar this month, are meeting in Cairo ahead of a gathering of the Friends of Syria, a grouping of dozens of countries that had pledged mostly non-military backing for the revolt but which are worried by the rising influence of Islamists in the opposition.

"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, one of the coalition's two vice-presidents.

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.

The two-day meeting will also select committees to manage aid and communications, a process that is developing into a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular members.

Rivalries have also intensified between the opposition in exile and rebels on the ground, where the death toll has reached 40,000 after 20 months of violence.

But 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 Hafez al-Assad, Assad's late father. Mustafa, who now lives in Kuwait, left the country decades ago after protesting against Hafez's policies.

Assad has painted the opposition as extremists and al Qaeda followers and presented himself as the last guarantor for an undivided Syria.

After the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first major opposition grouping formed in Istanbul last year, won scant international support, a Western and Gulf backed effort produced the new coalition earlier this month.

Its head, Damascus preacher Moaz Alkhatib, has repeatedly rejected sectarianism. But Atassi said that major figures have been overlooked in the new coalition and that efforts are 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 do 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 is confident the new group will 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.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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