ISTANBUL: The main exiled Syrian opposition group Wednesday elected Saudi-based businessman Hadi al-Bahra as its new president, as 20 ISIS members were killed in regime airstrikes on Raqqa.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main exiled opposition group seeking the overthrow of President Bashar Assad, will be hoping Bahra enjoys greater success than his predecessor Ahmad Jarba in keeping up the pressure on the regime.
“Hadi Bahra was elected president of the coalition with 62 votes,” the coalition said in a statement after the early morning vote at the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sile outside Istanbul in Turkey. His nearest rival, Mowafaq Nayrabiyeh, won 41 votes, while Walid el-Omari won just three votes, it added.
Bahra will have the task of keeping alive the campaign to unseat Assad amid territorial gains by the regime and the rise of the radical jihadist group Islamic State, which the coalition vehemently opposes.
Jarba headed the coalition from July 2013 but failed in efforts to unite the opposition and obtain significant Western military support.
Bahra was born in Damascus in 1959 and studied industrial engineering in the U.S., the coalition’s website says. He speaks English fluently.
But he has spent most of his adult life in Saudi Arabia, where he has managed several hospitals and businesses and still lives.
He headed the opposition negotiating team in its delegation to the failed Geneva II talks between the opposition and the regime in Switzerland earlier this year. In an interview with AFP at those talks, Bahra reaffirmed he was determined to reach a political solution, saying the opposition was “not looking to seek power or impose an opinion.”
The Syrian opposition has been riven by internal conflicts linked to rows between its main foreign sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia and its influential Gulf Arab neighbor Qatar. But its members are now trying to reach a consensus and end the feuding which has exasperated the West and anti-Assad Syrians tired of being manipulated by outside powers.
As a Saudi based businessman, Bahra should enjoy the support of Riyadh but will have to show that he can also be a figure of reconciliation within the opposition.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed Bahra’s election and pledged that Britain would work closely with him and other in the SNC.
The president of the coalition changes on an annual basis partly in an effort to ensure no foreign power wields too much influence by keeping a pliable figure in power too long.
Most Syrians living in opposition-held areas believe the coalition has failed to secure either the political or military backing the rebels need to topple the Assad regime, with many activists frequently accusing its members of being disconnected from reality on the ground.
In Syria Wednesday, “At least 20 members of ISIS were killed and others were injured in air strikes ... targeting an Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria training base in Raqa,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The strikes also destroyed 14 ISIS military vehicles, the Observatory added.
A Tunisian jihadist Wednesday carried out a suicide car bomb attack in the Kurdish town of Ain Eissa, killing four Kurdish fighters.
In the northern province of Aleppo, ISIS seized three Kurdish areas to the east of Ain al-Arab (Kobani in Kurdish) after two days of fighting that killed at least 22 jihadists and 18 Kurdish fighters, said the Observatory.
The reports come hours after Syrian state television said rebels carried out a “massacre” that included women and children, while the Observatory said seven men and seven women had been “executed” by rebel fighters.
The Observatory said the rebels accused the residents of Khatab village of “collaboration with the criminal regime,” and executed the 14.
Meanwhile, in the city of Aleppo, four people, among them a media activist, were killed and dozens more wounded in air raids on rebel-held areas, the Observatory said.
Aleppo has been under a massive aerial offensive since December.
Syrian armed forces have taken strategic ground around the city this week, residents and state media said Wednesday, squeezing the main rebel supply line into the city after months of battlefield gains by Damascus.
The government advance, after close to two years of stalemate, was bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, according to sources close to Hezbollah.
Rebels pushed into Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, in 2012 from the north and took districts in the heart of the city.
Since then, the army has held the west and south of Aleppo but has been unable to dislodge opposition fighters.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had taken control of an industrial complex in northeast Aleppo Sunday. Control of the complex means rebels are now hemmed in on three sides by government forces and can only resupply neighborhoods in the city through a northern corridor.