BEIRUT: Syria’s Western-backed opposition, the National Coalition, elected Hadi al-Bahra, chief negotiator at the Geneva peace talks, as its new president on Wednesday after a three-day meeting in Istanbul.
The United States and other key powers have designated the Coalition as the main body representing the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has little power inside Syria where disparate militant groups outside its control hold ground.
Bahra, a U.S-trained industrial engineer, has close ties to regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, as did his predecessor Ahmad Jarba, who stood down after serving the maximum two six-month terms.
Bahra’s election is unlikely to have any impact on the situation in Syria or within opposition ranks for now, though France, the first Western nation to back the Coalition, welcomed his appointment and said it was still striving for a political resolution of the conflict.
Infighting within the opposition coalition has undermined rebel efforts to take on forces loyal to Assad, playing into the hands of rival, more hardline groups that include foreign militants such as the Islamic State.
U.S.- and Russian-sponsored talks to end the three-year-old civil war stalled after two rounds in January and February in Geneva, when the coalition and Assad’s representatives failed to make substantive progress.
Bahra, born in 1959 in Damascus, has worked as a businessman in Saudi Arabia running hospitals and a Jeddah-based media and software distribution company, a biography on the National Coalition’s website said.
While welcoming Bahra’s election, the French foreign ministry said Paris would not change its stance of providing civilian and non-lethal military aid. The rebels say they need heavy weaponry to change the balance on the ground in Syria.
“We will continue to provide support to help (the Coalition) fight oppression and terrorism,” spokesman Romain Nadal said in a daily online briefing.
“This aid aims to help the moderate opposition protect the population against attacks by the regime and terrorists and provide basic public services in liberated zones.”
A French diplomatic source said there was no real political will in Paris to increase military support and that the French wanted to focus on humanitarian efforts.