Syrian opposition elects new leader

By Stuart Williams, AFP

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The main exiled Syrian opposition group on Wednesday elected Saudi-based businessman Hadi el-Bahra as its new president in a bid to end internal divisions and breathe fresh life into its flagging struggle to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main exiled opposition group seeking the overthrow of Assad, will be hoping el-Bahra enjoys greater success than his predecessor Ahmad Jarba in keeping up the pressure on the regime. “Hadi el-Bahra was elected president of the coalition with 62 votes,” the coalition said in a statement after the early morning vote at the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sile outside Istanbul in Turkey.

His nearest rival, Mowafaq Nayrabiyeh, won 41 votes, while Walid el-Omari won just three votes, it added. Delegates are expected to return later Wednesday to elect a vice president and a secretary general while el-Bahra is also expected to give a press conference. El-Bahra will have the task of keeping alive the campaign to unseat Assad amid territorial gains by the regime and the rise of the radical jihadist group Islamic State, which the coalition vehemently opposes.

Jarba headed the coalition from July 2013 but failed in efforts to unite the opposition and obtain significant Western military support. El-Bahra was born in Damascus in 1959 and studied industrial engineering in the United States, according to the coalition’s website. He speaks English fluently. But he has spent most of his adult life in Saudi Arabia, where he has managed several hospitals and businesses and still lives. He headed the opposition negotiating team in its delegation to the failed Geneva 2 talks between the opposition and the regime in Switzerland earlier this year. In an interview with AFP at those talks, el-Bahra reaffirmed he was determined to reach a political solution, saying that the opposition was “not looking to seek power or impose an opinion.” El-Bahra is softly spoken yet he has frequently publicly denounced human rights violations by the Assad regime, as well as the international community’s failure to step up assistance to the Syrian people. The Syrian opposition has been riven by internal conflicts linked to disputes between its main foreign sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia and its influential Gulf Arab neighbor Qatar. But its members are now trying to reach a consensus and end the feuding which has exasperated the West and anti-Assad Syrians tired of being manipulated by outside powers. As a Saudi based businessman, el-Bahra should enjoy the support of Riyadh but will have to show he can also be a figure of reconciliation within the opposition. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed el-Bahra’s election and pledged that Britain would work closely with him and other in the SNC. The president of the coalition changes on an annual basis partly in an effort to ensure no foreign power wields too much influence by keeping a pliable figure in power too long. Most Syrians living in opposition-held areas believe the coalition has failed to secure either the political or military backing the rebels need to topple Assad regime, with many activists frequently accusing its members of being disconnected from reality on the ground.