Several of the main opposition groups in Syria say they have reached an historic agreement to unify under a single banner, after months of negotiations to bring together the factions trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian National Council has emerged as the primary face of the resistance at crucial moment. Now dragging into its seventh month, the standoff between Mr. al-Assad and street protesters seems poised to escalate into an armed conflict.
"We were dealing with a fragmented opposition that is finally getting its act together," said Yaser Tabbara, a Chicago lawyer who now serves as a council member.
Reports from central Syria described 250 tanks deployed to quell battles between the army and rebellious soldiers. Such open warfare was a rarity during the initial months of the uprising, which has frequently seen crackdowns by security forces against unarmed demonstrators. The United Nations estimates that at least 2,700 people have been killed so far.
The threat of a civil war appears to have been one of the concerns that pushed the fractious dissidents to set aside squabbles about their goals and methods. Representatives from disparate groups – Islamists, technocrats, leftists, Kurds, Christians – spent more than two months in talks, often disagreeing about issues such as how to engage the international community and whether civilians should take up weapons. On Sunday, at a hotel on the outskirts of Istanbul, they announced a common front: an assembly of 190 members, led by a secretariat of 29 senior officials, and a seven-member executive committee.
They have not yet picked a leader, but agreed on general principles. Most controversially, they declared themselves against a Libya-style armed revolution, which succeeded in ousting a tyrant but left a population awash in weaponry. They also decided against calling for help from foreign troops or aircraft, but mused about other kinds of outside assistance.
The SNC lacked support from several key opposition groups when it was first announced in August, but activists say its membership grew quickly in recent weeks. Three groups involved with street protests – the Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Co-ordination Committees , and Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators' Union – are now represented on the council. The new leadership also contains a large contingent from the Muslim Brotherhood, and more secular-minded representatives who helped to write the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a call for a "modern democratic" state.
But the SNC has not yet convinced Michel Kilo, an activist who was central to the Damascus Declaration but now leads his own National Committee for Democratic Change . The SNC says it has representatives from ethnic and religious minorities, but it's unclear whether they have attracted enough high-profile Shia Muslims to ease the growing concerns about a sectarian rift in the Sunni-majority country.
Nor does the SNC have support from the Australian branch of the Damascus Declaration group or the Syrian Revolutionary Council of the Co-ordination Committees.
Halit Hoca, an SNC spokesman, said the point of friction between the new council and other opposition members is usually the question of whether protesters should pick up guns. The terrible death toll in Libya serves as a warning, he said, and the Syrian opposition fears what might happen if such forces are unleashed.
"Especially for young people, 15 to 25 years old, you cannot control them," Mr. Hoca said.
The SNC's anti-weapons policy has an important exception for military units. Mr. Hoca said the council has not yet formally established links with the Free Officers' Movement or other deserters who have turned their guns on Damascus, but he said that 10,000 such ex-soldiers have taken part in the rebellion and encouraged more to join.
"We can have victory by calling on the army," Mr. Hoca said.