DOHA — Syria’s splintered opposition factions started talks in Qatar on Sunday on a common front to gain global respect and recognition and, crucially, better weapons for their quest to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the first concerted attempt to meld opposition groups based abroad and align them with rebels fighting in Syria, to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed more than 32,000 people, devastated swathes of the country and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.
Tensions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united opposition.
Four days of talks in the Qatari capital Doha are expected with the goal of overhauling and broadening the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest of the overseas-based opposition groups, from about 300 members to 400.
Council leaders hope this would pave the way to a follow-up meeting in Doha on Thursday with other opposition factions with the goal of creating an anti-Assad coalition setting aside months of political and personal infighting.
"The main aim is to expand the council to include more of the social and political components. There will be new forces in the council," Abdulbaset Sieda, leader of the council, said ahead of the meeting. The meetings will also elect a new executive committee and leader for the Syrian National Council, criticised in the past over perceptions of domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The US called last week for an overhaul of the opposition’s leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the Syrian National Council and bring in those "in the frontlines fighting and dying". Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Qatar meeting is a chance to establish a credible opposition.
Internal feuding, a lack of co-operation between leaders abroad and fighters in Syria and the rising clout of autonomous Muslim militants have deterred western powers from offering more than just moral support.
Influential opposition figure Riad Seif has proposed a structure melding the rebel Free Syrian Army, regional military councils and other insurgent units alongside local civilian bodies and prominent opposition figures on Sunday, Mr Seif called for a more active role by the global community to support the opposition.
"The world is watching like it’s a film. Now the world must come to help and not just make statements. We need real help, we need to be protected by air forces."
Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Mr Seif said in an interview last week, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and "decide the battle".
Western diplomats based in the Middle East said Washington was supporting an initiative by Mr Seif.
But opposition sources said the success of his initiative would depend on the degree to which he could resist pressure from the Syrian National Council to pack the new assembly, proposed by Mr Seif, with its members.
"We did not say we are rejecting it (Mr Seif’s initiative) and we did not accept it. We are talking," Mr Sieda said.
"We welcome a consultative meeting for the powers on the ground and political factions in the Syrian opposition ... the Syrian National Council remains the main power in the Syrian opposition particularly after this expansion."
Syrian National Council member Burhan Ghalioun said the assembly would complement the council structure but not replace it.