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.