Syria’s main opposition has elected Ahmad Assi Jarba to lead the movement, which groups together opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, spokesman Khaled Saleh said.
The news came on Saturday in Istanbul, where the Syrian National Coalition is based, while on the ground in Syria fierce fighting continued as the army pressed forward with an assault on rebel-held districts.
Jarba, who represents the faction of veteran secular dissident Michel Kilo and who is seen as close to Saudi Arabia, obtained 55 votes in the deeply divided Syrian National Coalition on Saturday.
He edged out the group’s secretary general Mustafa al-Sabbagh, who obtained 52 votes in the second round of balloting at the group’s meeting in Istanbul.
The opposition had been rudderless since the departure in May of Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib in protest at the world’s “inaction” over Syria’s civil war.
The selection of a new chief had initially been mooted for the end of May, but had been postponed amid conflicting views on the future direction of the coalition and attempts by other countries in the region to influence the outcome.
In a short statement published after his election, Jarba said his “priority is to manage developments on the ground in Syria, particularly at Homs,” the central city which was suffering an eighth straight day of assault from al-Assad’s troops.
Among the rebels’ Western sympathizers, France was swift to congratulate Jarba on his win, saying that his election reinforced the coalition as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later said: “The United States welcomes the July 6 election of Syrian Coalition President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba, and looks forward to working with him and with his team. “We hope to make progress together with President Jarba to prevent the total collapse of Syria into chaos and rebuild its social fabric.”
Psaki said the US was looking “to President Jarba and the new leaders to reach out to all Syrian communities and bring greater unity of purpose and further organization to the Syrian Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.”
She added: “A united opposition is essential to achieve a negotiated political solution in which Bashar al-Assad steps down, and a new transition government leads all Syrians to dignity, freedom and hope for the future.”
Born in 1969 in the northeastern city of Qamishli, on the border with Turkey, Jarba is a Sunni Muslim whose work for the opposition involved convincing Arab and Western nations to arm the rebels. In his work he is often seen in Western-style suit and tie, but several of his authorized photographs show him wearing the flowing robe, or abaya, of the Arab tribes.
During Saturday’s vote, the 114 members of the coalition also elected three vice presidents — Suheir Atassi, Mohammed Farouk Tayfur and Salim Muslit.
Badr Jamous was voted secretary general of the umbrella organization recognized by dozens of states and organizations as legitimately representing the Syrian people.
Meanwhile on the ground, troops loyal to al-Assad seized several buildings on the edges of rebel-held districts of Homs as they pressed an eight-day assault on the central Syrian city, activists said on Saturday.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army captured several buildings in Bab Hud in the city center.
Rebel-held areas of Homs have been under siege by the regime’s military for more than a year.