Syrian Opposition Elects New Leader

Meeting in Istanbul, opposition figures elected Ahmad al-Jabra, a tribal figure with close ties to Saudi Arabia.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in the Middle East, turning out attention now to Syria, where the main opposition coalition has a new leader. During meetings in Istanbul, opposition leaders elected Ahmad al-Jarba, who has close ties to Saudi Arabia. The change comes as civilians in Syria's central city of Homs are facing a fierce government assault. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After another two-day Syrian Coalition meeting had spilled over into a third day with more to come, spokesman Khaled Saleh had some news.

KHALED SALEH: The new president of the Syrian Coalition is Mr. Ahmed al-Asi al-Jarba.

KENYON: Ahmad al-Jarba was once jailed for challenging the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and he's considered an ally of Saudi Arabia. In the end, this election was seen as a proxy contest between the Saudis and another main backer of the Syrian rebels, Qatar. Qatar's man finished second. Coalition members say Jarba's victory signals more Saudi influence over upcoming decisions, but they weren't prepared to predict what decisions this group might be able to agree on. The coalition desperately needs to shore up its credentials within Syria, where it's frequently criticized as a group of outsiders too busy fighting for power to be effective in bringing assistance to the under-armed rebel fighters doing battle with president Bashar al-Assad's military. Cognizant of that, spokesman Saleh spent more time talking about the Syrian military assault on the Homs neighborhood of Khalidiya than about the election results.

SALEH: They are set on entering al-Khalidiya. We have confirmed reports of using chemical weapons against innocent civilians. We have more than 25 casualties.

KENYON: The claims of chemical weapons were not independently confirmed. The coalition also elected three vice presidents, including a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another vice president, Salem al-Muslat, says the horrific conditions facing both civilians and rebel fighters inside Syria have to be the coalition's top priority.

VICE PRESIDENT SALEM AL-MUSLAT: Syria needs a lot, the revolution needs a lot. You know, we're just a few days away from Ramadan, and our people, they need a lot of help, you know, they need relief, forces. They need support, and you know what kind of support they need.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIGHTING)

KENYON: The Free Syrian Army says it's desperately short of weapons and needs a no-fly zone. But as online videos appear to show more fierce fighting in Homs and other cities, activists say international help remains deeply inadequate. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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