BEIRUT — The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group elected a former political prisoner Saturday as its new president, filling a post that has been vacant for months due to divisions among opponents of President Bashar Assad.
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 Saturday.
The Syrian National Coalition said Ahmad al-Jarba received 55 votes from the 114-member council in the poll that took place in the Turkish city of Istanbul, where many Syrian opposition figures are based.
Jarba is from the northeastern province of Hassakeh and is a member of the powerful Shammar tribe that extends into Iraq. He and other coalition members could not be immediately reached for comment Saturday.
The opposition coalition 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-Mislit and prominent opposition figure Suhair Atassi. Badr Jamous was voted in as the coalition’s secretary general.
The Syrian National Coalition meeting is 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 inside the country who are trying to survive the third summer of a conflict that has killed more than 93,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
In late May, the opposition leaders met for more than a week in Istanbul, but failed to elect new leaders or devise a strategy for possible peace talks that the United States and Russia have been trying to convene in Geneva. The Syrian National Coalition said recently that it will not attend the Geneva talks unless they are about Assad handing over power.
The election of Jarba suggests that the opposition is trying to unite despite its differences after Assad’s forces have gained ground in and around the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
On the ground in Syria, meanwhile, troops gained ground in the rebel-held Khaldiyeah district of the city of Homs. The push into Khaldiyeh 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.
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 two years ago, deteriorated into an all-out civil war after a violent government crackdown.