Syrian dissidents meeting in Istanbul on Sunday announced the formation of a council uniting most of their country’s fractious opposition groups, a step that activists hailed as a potential breakthrough in the months-long standoff between a largely leaderless protest movement and the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian National Council aims to represent the opposition in dealings with the international community and to offer an alternative to Assad, something that has been lacking since ordinary Syrians began swarming the streets in March to stage anti-government demonstrations.

At a time when protesters in some areas are increasingly resorting to weapons, activists said they hoped that the creation of a unified opposition body would breathe fresh life into the protests and encourage international support for an uprising whose complexities have deterred significant action by world powers.

What form that support should take is one issue on which there is still no consensus, with many protesters inside Syria increasingly calling for NATO intervention and many exiled dissidents remaining adamantly opposed to foreign intercession.

But many activists said they are relieved that the Syrian opposition can now claim a semblance of unity after months of bickering and numerous false starts. Syrians nationwide took to the streets to proclaim support for the council.

“Finally, after 40 years of oppression and six months of bloodshed, we have a united opposition,” said Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian American lawyer who is a member of the council and helped organize the effort. “The international community has been waiting awhile for an alternative to the Assad regime and a body it can negotiate with and talk to. This is it.”

The announcement was made by the Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun, a rising star in the opposition movement who enjoys widespread support among youth activists in Syria in part because of his secularism and his perceived political independence.

The council aims to “achieve the goals of the revolution to topple the regime, including all of its components and leadership, and to replace it with a democratic pluralistic regime,” he said in a statement read to journalists.

It will not, council members stressed, attempt to duplicate the role of the Libyan Transitional National Council, which was swiftly formed as an alternative government in the weeks after the Libyan revolt began. The Syrian council will serve as a form of parliament to debate and formulate opposition policy, with an inner council of seven members, yet to be chosen, rotating the presidency among themselves, they said.

A representative council

Western diplomats have frequently identified the lack of a unified opposition movement as one of the Syrian uprising’s biggest obstacles. Without a coherent opposition or any clear sense of who or what would replace Assad, world powers and many ordinary Syrians have been reluctant to throw their weight behind efforts to unseat him, fearful of a power vacuum in the strategically located nation.

Several previous efforts to form such a body had faltered on disagreements between Islamists and secularists, expatriate figures and street protesters inside Syria, elderly dissidents and the youth activists who have provided what little leadership exists in this mostly spontaneous revolt. But the newly formed council appears to have brought together representatives of most of the diverse assortment of groups that have emerged to challenge the Assad government.

Included in the 190-member council are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the traditional dissidents known collectively as the Damascus Declaration and the three main groups representing protesters inside Syria — the Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission and the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution. Roughly half of the members come from inside Syria, and members of the Kurdish, Christian and Alawite minorities are also represented.

“This is the real deal,” said Shakeeb al-Jabri, an activist in Beirut who refrained from supporting previous iterations of an opposition council because they were not sufficiently representative of the youthful revolutionaries inside Syria. “I'm optimistic because finally we have a comprehensive council that we can say legitimately represents the revolution. This will reinvigorate the protesters and give us a voice with the international community.”

Rift emerges on way forward

Whether the council will succeed in finding a unified voice is in question, however. There is no consensus on the increasingly contentious questions of whether the protest movement should acquire arms or whether it should call for foreign military intervention along the lines of the NATO mission that helped topple the Libyan regime.

The statement read by Ghalioun called for the continuation of “peaceful” resistance to Assad and rejected foreign intervention, though he urged the United Nations to do more to protect Syrian civilians.

But a sharp divide is emerging between protesters inside Syria, who are increasingly calling for NATO intervention as the government presses ahead with its military offensive against them, and those living abroad, who still hope that nonviolent resistance will eventually succeed in toppling the regime.

“The situation is deteriorating rapidly on the ground. It’s a war, and the people inside are calling for all the help they can get,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based dissident who is on the council. He said he thinks a majority of Syrian dissidents now support military intervention, but he foresees bitter wrangling within the council.

“Some are lobbying for it, and some are against it, but those against it are very few,” he said. “This will be the most difficult decision for the council to take,” he said.

‘We really feel we are alone’

The announcement of the council came a day after the Syrian government declared it had crushed resistance in yet another town, Rastan, which had become a center for defecting soldiers seeking to organize an armed rebellion against the government in the name of the Free Syrian Army. Rami Abdelrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people were killed in the five-day offensive.

In Homs, a central city near Rastan where violent confrontations have been escalating, activists said they welcomed the formation of the council, but on the condition that it presses for greater international intervention.

“The Syrian National Council is a very good step, but we need more movement from the international community,” said an activist contacted by Skype who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety. “We really feel we are alone. We feel no one is helping us. And after all the bloodshed we have seen, we want any kind of help.”