DOHA - The Syrian opposition agreed on Sunday to unite against Bashar al-Assad’s regime as Israel fired warning shots into the war-torn country in response to mortar fire that hit the Golan Heights.
After four days of marathon talks in Qatar, the Syrian National Council finally signed up to a wider, more representative bloc centred on a government-in-waiting, as demanded by Arab and Western states. The opposition factions also elected cleric Ahmed al-Khatib to head the bloc, dissidents said. Khatib, a moderate originally from Damascus who quit Syria three months ago, will lead the National Coalition of Forces of the the Syrian Revolution and Opposition, formed after the Syrian National Council agreed to the new group.
The Israeli warning shot across the UN-monitored ceasefire line between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights came after a mortar round fired from the Syrian side hit an Israeli position.
It came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Israel was “ready for any development.”
Reservations in SNC ranks about what many members saw as a move to sideline it had prompted repeated delays in the Doha talks and mounting frustration among other dissident groups and the opposition’s Arab and Western supporters.
But after negotiations ran into the early hours of Sunday and resumed in the afternoon, the anti-Assad factions agreed to form a “National Coalition of Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition.” “We signed a 12-point agreement to establish a coalition,” said leading dissident Riad Seif, who drew up the US-backed reform proposals on which Sunday’s agreement was based.
In a copy of the document obtained by AFP, the parties “agree to work for the fall of the regime and of all its symbols and pillars,” and rule out any dialogue with the regime. They agreed to unify the fighting forces under a supreme military council and to set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas.
A provisional govt would be formed after the coalition gains international recognition, and a transitional government formed after the regime has fallen.
The deal came after the SNC, which had formerly been seen as the main opposition group, heeded Arab and Western pressure to agree to a new structure embracing groups that had been unwilling to join its ranks.
Former prime minister Riad Hijab, who fled to neighbouring Jordan in August in the highest-ranking defection from Assad’s government, hailed the agreement as “an advanced step towards toppling the regime.”
There had been mounting pressure for an overhaul amid US-led accusations that the SNC had lost touch with civilian activists and rebels inside Syria and become little more than a talking shop for exiles.
Concern had been further raised by fears of a spillover of the conflict as fighting raged on Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey as well as on the armistice line with the Israeli-occupied Golan.
The Israeli army said a mortar round fired from the Syrian side had hit one of its positions on the Golan plateau, prompting the riposte from its troops.
“A mortar shell hit an IDF (Israel Defence Forces) post in the Golan Heights... as part of the internal conflict inside Syria,” it said, adding that “in response, IDF soldiers fired warning shots towards Syrian areas.” Military sources told AFP the army fired a single Tamuz anti-tank missile, a weapon known for being highly accurate, towards the Syrian outpost from which the mortar round was fired. “We shot toward them, but deliberately missed,” one said. Chief military spokesman Yoav Mordechai said it was Israel’s first firing across the armistice line since the 1973 war.
Earlier, Netanyahu said Israel was “closely monitoring what is happening on our border with Syria and there too we are ready for any development.”
Fighting also flared on the Turkish border as Syrian troops and rebels battled for the town of Ras al-Ain, where thousands of refugees have fled into Turkey in recent days, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Ras al-Ain is one of just two Turkish border crossings the Syrian army still controls. Rebels fighting to bring down Assad have captured four others while a seventh is controlled by Kurdish militia. Nationwide violence killed at least 64 people so far on Sunday, the Observatory said, among more than 37,000 who have lost their lives since the uprising erupted in March last year.
It relies on a countrywide network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals to compile its tolls.