BEIRUT — A former Syrian political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia was picked Saturday to lead Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, filling a post long vacant due to divisions among President Bashar Assad's opponents.
Inside Syria, government troops advanced into rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs, pushing into a heavily contested neighborhood after pummeling it with artillery that drove out opposition fighters, an activist said.
The election of Ahmad al-Jarba as the head of the Syrian National Coalition came during a meeting in Turkey in what was the second attempt in recent months by Assad's opponents to unify their ranks.
The opposition bloc is primarily composed of exiled politicians with little support among Syrians back home who are trying to survive the third summer of conflict that has killed more than 93,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Al-Jarba's election suggests the opposition is trying to unite despite its differences after Assad's forces gained ground last month in and around the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
It also underscored the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both have been prominent backers of forces struggling to oust Assad.
The Saudi-backed al-Jarba won 55 votes, edging out Qatar-endorsed businessman Mustafa Sabbagh who got 52 votes, according to a statement from the 114-member SNC in Istanbul, where many of Syrian opposition figures are based. The SNC statement did not say who the remaining members voted for.
Al-Jarba, a 44-year-old lawyer with a law degree from Beirut's Arab University, is from Syria's northeastern province of Hassakeh and is a member of the powerful Shammar tribe that extends into Iraq. He was a little-known anti-Assad figure before Syria's civil war though he was detained in March 2011 – days after the uprising against Assad began. It was his second arrest, following one in 1996 when he was held for two years because of anti-government activities.
After his release, al-Jarba left Syria in August in 2011 and became active in the opposition. He is close to secular politician Michel Kilo's Democratic Bloc, which recently joined the SNC. Al-Jarba could not be immediately reached for comment after his election Saturday.
An SNC statement quoted him as saying that his priorities will be "to follow-up on the situation inside Syria, especially in Homs," and that "all efforts should be in this direction."
But even with al-Jarba's election, it is unclear if the SNC can overcome deep divisions among its politicians.
Also, the council has in many ways become irrelevant to rebels battling regime troops in Syria, despite its appointment in March of Ghassan Hitto as head of an interim government meant to administer areas seized by the rebels. So far, Hitto has not formed a Cabinet.
The vote in Turkey came as the U.S. and Russia hope to bring the warring sides in Syria together at an international conference in Geneva. The SNC said recently it will not attend the Geneva talks unless they are about Assad handing over power.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. welcomed al-Jarba's election and would work with him "to prevent the total collapse of Syria into chaos."
The U.S. also urged the Syrian opposition to unite, Psaki said, adding that a "united opposition is essential to achieve a negotiated solution."
Assad has repeatedly dismissed his political opponents as foreign-directed exiles who don't represent the people of Syria. The president also has shrugged off international calls to step down, saying he will serve the rest of his term and may consider running for another one in next year's presidential elections.
In Syria, meanwhile, government troops gained ground in the rebel-held Khaldiyeah district of Homs. The push was the first significant gain in the city for Assad's forces. Government troops have been waging an eight-day campaign to seize parts of the central Syrian city that has been in rebel hands for more than a year.
Tariq Badrakhan, an activist based in the neighborhood, said government troops used rockets, mortars and cannon fire to flush out the area's "first line of defenses" on Friday evening. The offensive continued Saturday morning, he said via Skype, as explosions were heard in the background.
"We feel like they are shaking the sky," Badrakhan told The Associated Press.
Another activist said eight rebels were killed in the fighting. He requested anonymity because rebels have accused him in the past of damaging their morale by reporting their casualties. He could not confirm that government forces had entered Khaldiyeh but said the report was consistent with the fighting he was following there. State-run media said government forces had seized buildings in the nearby Bab Houd area.
Fighting also continued Saturday in the northern city of Aleppo, a crucial stronghold for the rebels, as well as the Damascus suburb of Qaboun.
The Syrian conflict, which began with months of peaceful protests against the Assad regime more than two years ago, deteriorated into an all-out civil war after a violent government crackdown.
Government forces, sometimes backed by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have recently launched a major countrywide offensive to reclaim territory lost to rebels, who operate in chaotic groups with ideologies ranging from secular to hard-line Islamic extremists. Hard-line Sunni Muslims from other countries have also joined the fighting.
The fighting in Syria has increasingly taken on sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunnis.
Activists, who consider Homs "the capital of the revolution," say the regime wants to capture the entire city to include it in a future Alawite state stretching to the coast, where many believe Assad would take refuge in a last resort.
In the vote in Turkey, the SNC also elected three vice presidents, including Mohammed Farouk Taifour, a senior official with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. The other two vice presidents are Salem al-Muslit and prominent opposition figure Suhair Atassi. Badr Jamous was voted in as the SNC's secretary general.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.
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March 2011: 120
Thousands of Syrians rally to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure amid a wave of dissent, in Damascus on March 29 2011. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2011: 820
A protestor burns a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration after Friday prayers on April 29 2011 in Istanbul against the regime of al-Assad and the deadly crackdown on opposition protests. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
May 2011: 850
A veiled woman takes part in a protest calling on Syria's President Bashar Assad to step down, in front of the United Nations headquarters in Amman, on May 21 2011. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
June 2011: 1,000
Syrian refugees arrive to a makeshift camp in the northern city of Idlib, in Syria, on June 13 2011. (MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this caption placed the city of Idlib in Turkey. Idlib is in Syria. </em>
July 2011: 1,600
Thousands of pro-regime Syrians wave their national flag and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in Damascus on July 17 2011. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
August 2011: More than 2,000
People hold pictures of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and fallen Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi as they take part in a demonstration gathering activists opposed to Syria's regime of President Bashar al-Assad on August 28 2011 at Taksim Square in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
September 2011: 2,700
A national flag hangs on a statue of Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad at the entrance of the flashpoint city of Homs on August 30 2011, as rights activists reported widespread anti-regime protests across Syria on the first day of the feast marking the end of Ramadan. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2011: 3,000
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian flags during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on October 12, 2011. Assad's regime is facing international pressure amid a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that broke out in March across Syria. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
November 2011: More than 4,000
Syrian soldiers carry on November 26, 2011 the coffin of a comrade reportedly killed in an ambush by an armed group in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs. (AFP/Getty Images)
December 2011: More than 5,000
Free Syrian Army captain identified as Ahmed al-Arabi sits in a safe house near Wadi Khaled on the Lebanese-Syrian border on December 30 2011. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2012: 7,100
Free Syrian Army fighters take position in a house on the Lebanese-Syrian border prior to a nighttime operation on January 2 2012. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2012: 7,500
A Turkish journalist in Ankara, holds pictures of two journalists, French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, killed in an alleged rocket attack by Syrian regime forces against a makeshift opposition media center in the besieged city of Homs in Syria on February 22 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
March 2012: More than 8,000
A defected Syrian soldier, now a member of the Free Syrian Army, stands outside a mountain outpost near the village of Janudieh in the northern province of Idlib on March 20 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2012: Close to 9,000
Syrians pray over the bodies of Syrian violence victims at a funeral in the northwestern town of Kafr Zeta on April 10, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)
May 2012: More than 9,000
A general view shows the Syrian flag flying next to destruction in the Bab Amro neighbourhood of Homs on May 2 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages)
June 2012: 14,000
A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. (AFP/GettyImages)
July 2012: 19,000
Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Rebels seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq on July 19. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)
August 2012: 23,000
A Syrian boy whose family has been displaced due to fighting between rebel fighterws and Syrian government forces is seen near the Syrian border with Turkey on August 25, 2012. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages)
September 2012: 30,000
A Syrian man carrying grocery bags tries to dodge sniper fire as he runs through an alley near a checkpoint manned by the Free Syria Army in the northern city of Aleppo on September 14, 2012. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2012: 36,000
A Syrian boy plays on a destroyed tank near the rubble of a mosque that was destroyed during fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces in the northern city of Azaz on September 23, 2012. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GettyImages)
November 2012: 40,000
A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2000-years-ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on November 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan in southern Idlib province. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)
December 2012: 60,000
Smoke rises in the Hanano and Bustan al-Basha districts in the northern city of Aleppo on December 1, 2012 as fighting continues through the night. (Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2013: 65,000
A boy plays with a balloon in a Syrian refugees camp in Azaz, near the Turkish border, on January 10, 2013 after snow falls. (EDOUARD ELIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2013: More than 70,000
Syrian Zakia Abdullah sits on the rubble of her house in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo on February 23, 2013. (Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)