ISTANBUL (AP) — The main Western-backed opposition group in Syria has elected an interim prime minister as it seeks to firm up its standing as a viable political alternative there.
The Syrian National Coalition voted during a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday to name Ahmad Saleh Touma, a dentist and longtime political activist, to lead the group. Touma’s election comes as the United States and Russia have reached a deal to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and are seeking a breakthrough on broad talks to end the long and deadly Syrian civil war.
Touma is the second SNC member to fill the post. Ghassan Hitto resigned in July after serving only a few months. In an indication of the divisions that have hampered the opposition, many members had opposed Hitto because of his perceived proximity to the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood.
Touma will be charged with organizing governance in parts of Syria controlled by disparate rebel factions. He later said in a speech that they will work on returning Syria to a state that respects human life and rights.
“Syria will be the republic of humans where there will be no place for killers and criminals,” he said. He added that he hoped a new government in exile will be formed soon.
According to the Syrian National Coalition, Touma has a history of dissent from the Syrian government going back to 2001, when he joined groups calling for more freedoms and the release of political prisoners.
A biography released by the SNC says Touma was detained multiple times by the Syrian government for his work and once was sentenced to two-and-half years in prison. The Syrian National Coalition says he later joined the opposition using a fake name because he was living in Syria. After his last detention in 2012, left the country for Turkey.
Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.
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