At the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Syrian National Council, the opposition group formed in August 2011, could no longer claim to be the credible leader of the opposition.
In recent months, the SNC has been criticized as an ineffectual organization out of touch with events on the ground in Syria.
Although many details of the structure of the new coalition and the timeline for achieving its political goals remained largely undefined Sunday, international supporters of the opposition praised the agreement and highlighted what appeared to be a new willingness of activists to work together.
A Syrian opposition conference held in Cairo in July led to fistfights between some activists.
“The regime fears most that the opposition unifies,” said Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister who defected in August and attended the opposition conference last week. “I know that. I was part of that regime.”
International backers of the opposition hope that a credible leadership for the group could win the support of ordinary Syrians and reduce the influence of extremist groups that are on the rise in the country.
At the signing ceremony for the new coalition, which ran past midnight Sunday, many of the Western supporters of the opposition were cautiously optimistic.
“I am hopeful that this will get traction in Syria,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “But it’s the Syrians who must decide.”
Moaz Khatib, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was named president of the new coalition. Khatib, who appeared at the signing ceremony Sunday night wearing a gray suit rather than clerical robes, is viewed as a religious moderate and is widely respected by opposition members inside and outside Syria. Riad Seif, a longtime activist who led the initiative to start a new coalition, and Suhair Atassi, a prominent female activist, were named vice presidents.
“After long suffering, the multiple national forces have reached a coalition of one front to help our people who are being slaughtered every day on the watch of the world,” Khatib said at the signing ceremony, which was attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davatoglu and Qatar’s prime minister, Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani.
The leaders of the coalition said that gaining international recognition was a top priority and that Khatib may head to Cairo as soon as Monday to pursue recognition from the Arab League.
That would be followed by a push to get recognition from the Friends of Syria group, which includes the United States, followed by a pitch to the United Nations.