Syrian opposition chooses new leader

BEIRUT — The Syrian opposition chose a new leader Saturday in the hope of ending months of feuding that has eroded most of the little support it once had among Syrians who back the uprising.

Ahmad al-Jarba, a little-known tribal leader from the eastern province of Hasakah, was elected to head the Syrian Opposition Coalition by 55 members of the 114-member council at a gathering in Istanbul, according to a statement from the group.

A boy with toy gun poses for picture in front of barricades at the police headquarters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, April 17, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Ukraine's government needs to provide guarantees to its Russian-speaking population in the east of the country to resolve the crisis. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A boy with a toy gun poses in front of the barricaded police headquarters in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine.

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Jarba, who was backed by Saudi Arabia, defeated a candidate favored by Qatar, Mustafa Sabbagh, in a further indication that Qatar’s once-dominant influence over the mostly exiled figures who make up the political opposition is waning.

Jarba belongs to the large al-Shammar tribe, whose members extend into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and he is related by marriage to one of Saudi King Abdullah’s wives.

Qatar had forcefully backed a faction within the opposition loyal to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and much of the feuding arose from an effort by Saudi Arabia and some of its Western allies to blunt the Brotherhood’s influence. The opposition group has been without a leader since its last president, the popular Damascus preacher Mouaz al-Khatib, quit in May — in part because of efforts by the Qatari-backed faction to undermine his authority.

A powerful Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Farouk Tayfur, was among three vice presidents also chosen.

In Washington, the State Department welcomed Jarba’s election. “We hope to make progress together with President Jarba to prevent the total collapse of Syria into chaos and rebuild its social fabric,” spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.

The vote coincided with an intensification of the fighting in Homs, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad managed to advance into the rebel stronghold of Khaldiyeh a week after launching an offensive there.

Walid al-Fares, an activist in Khaldiyeh, said loyalist troops took over several buildings on the northern side of the neighborhood after pounding them with artillery and airstrikes overnight Friday. Shells were falling every few minutes, he said, and rebels had appealed to the Free Syrian Army’s leadership to send arms and ammunition to help them hold onto their last stronghold in the heart of the strategic city.

Fares and other activists, including members of the coalition, claimed that small chemical devices, which were fired by tanks and caused burns and breathing difficulties, were used in the assault. In a statement, the coalition urged the international community to open an emergency humanitarian corridor to allow thousands of trapped civilians to escape Homs.

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