ISTANBUL – After an eight-day tug of war for control and with no clear winner, Syria’s opposition looks set to become more divided than ever.
On the ground, rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime and activists say they have lost faith in foreign-based dissidents who appear powerless to check army advances.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition concluded an extended meeting in Turkey on Friday that saw Qatari- and Saudi-backed dissidents reach a last-minute compromise brokered under intense pressure.
After hours of bickering, coalition chief George Sabra announced an expansion of the group to include 51 new members, taking the total to 114.
To date, the coalition has been dominated by the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood, but regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is seeking to downsize that influence.
Of the new members, some 10 are affiliated with veteran secular dissident Michel Kilo, whose bid to enter the umbrella coalition was backed by Riyadh.
“We have reached a compromise solution. While (Kilo’s list) has entered the group, the coalition has also expanded to include 14 grass-roots activists,” coalition member Salem al-Moslet said. “We are on the right track.”
Another 15 seats have been assigned to civilian members of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army command, which is also dominated by Saudi Arabia.
But the result of more than a week of back and forth in the Istanbul tug of war looks to be an unsteady balance.
Coalition members and officials from countries that back the anti-Assad revolt believe the conclusion was a success overall, however.
The coalition will now be able to elect a new leadership and discuss a U.S.-Russian peace initiative, a diplomat said, adding that it will be “two to three weeks” before the group holds its next meeting.
But while disputes raged among Saudi- and Qatari-backed dissidents in Turkey, across the border in Syria Assad loyalists were advancing, squeezing the coalition’s credibility in the war-torn country to a new low.
After months of rebel dominance east of Damascus and in central Syria’s Qusair, troops backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement have launched an assault to reclaim control of the key town. Scores of fighters on both sides have been killed, and Qusair has all but fallen into army hands.
But as the opposition closed its Istanbul meeting, news broke of the arrival of “hundreds” of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel reinforcements in Qusair, and hundreds of rebels reportedly broke through army lines to join the battle.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council added the rebel Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra to its global sanctions list because of its links to al-Qaida, making it subject to an international assets freeze and arms embargo.
Syrian troops reportedly killed three Westerners, including a U.S. woman and a British man, both Muslims, near the border with Turkey on Wednesday.
The Briton was named in reports as 22-year-old Londoner Ali al-Manasfi. He disappeared from his home four months ago and his family had reported him missing to the police. They later learned he had gone to Syria.
Relatives were shocked to discover he had traveled to the conflict-torn country, describing him as a “big kid at heart.”
Lebanon delays election
Lebanon’s Parliament on Friday voted to extend its mandate and delay elections after failing to adopt a new electoral law at a time of deep divisions over the war in neighboring Syria.
The motion for a 17-month extension was passed unanimously by 98 members of the 128-seat house who attended, with rival camps blaming each other for the delay.
“The term of the mandate of the legislature will be modified on an exceptional basis to end on Nov. 20, 2014,” rather than June 20 as scheduled, it reads. “Security and political tensions prevent the holding of an election campaign.”