Days of foreign-backed efforts to reorganise Syria’s opposition came to a head on Saturday, as twin car bombs killed at least 20 soldiers in the south of the country.
Opposition talks in the Qatari capital Doha saw the Syrian National Council vying to keep its leading role in the face of US- and Arab-backed proposals to form a new government-in-waiting that could win deeper support.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad meanwhile suffered a new blow, as two car bombs tore through an officers’ club in the southern city of Daraa, the cradle of Syria’s nearly 20-month uprising.
The blasts struck minutes apart in the back garden of the club, killing at least 20 soldiers and possibly many more, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a key watchdog, said.
State news agency Sana reported that two car bomb attacks had hit the city, causing casualties and significant damage, but provided no further details.
In Doha, the SNC – once regarded as the leading representative of the opposition but now derided in Washington as dominated by out-of-touch exiles – was due to give its delayed response on Saturday to proposals for a new broader-based body.
The SNC had asked for two postponements while it elected its own new leadership amid strong resistance among some members to what they see as the group’s sidelining in the new US-backed structure.
The group chose a Christian, George Sabra, as its new leader in a move seen as a response to criticism that Islamists play too dominant a role, but a major activist network inside Syria, the Local Coordination Committees, announced it was quitting the bloc in protest at its position on the unity talks.
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting, the SNC was expected to set out a counterproposal to the plan already agreed by most other opposition groups.
The SNC proposal envisages the formation of a provisional government pending a general congress of the opposition, according to a document seen by AFP.
The existing plan, inspired by leading dissident Riad Seif who is reportedly seen by Washington as a potential new opposition leader, envisages the formation of a transitional government, a military council to oversee rebel groups on the ground and a judiciary to operate in rebel-held areas.
The 10-member transitional government would be elected by a new 60-member umbrella group drawn from civilian activists and rebel fighters inside Syria as well as the exiles who have dominated the SNC.
Back on the ground, Kurdish residents backed by militia took control of two towns in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey after convincing pro-government forces to leave, the Observatory said.
The region’s Hasakeh province has seen heavy fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels, with 46 combatants killed in two days as the opposition seized the border town of Ras al-Ain on Friday.
The Kurds took control of the towns of Derbassiye and Tall Tamr late on Friday, the Observatory said.
They were backed by militia from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has links with Turkey’s rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it said.
The residents and militiamen surrounded government and security offices in both towns and convinced pro-government forces to abandon their posts, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and residents on the ground.
It said the residents had feared the same kind of violence that saw 9,000 Syrians flee to Turkey in 24 hours in the face of the fighting in Ras al-Ain.
Government forces now control just two major cities in the province, the capital Hasakeh and the far northeastern border town of Qamishli, the Observatory said.
Residents backed by militia also control some Kurdish majority areas of northwestern Syria.
Following Friday’s exodus into Turkey, the United Nations warned that the total number of refugees from the conflict would likely hit 700,000 and that those in need of emergency aid in Syria would rise to more than four million early next year.
The Observatory says more than 37,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year, first as a protest movement and then as an armed rebellion.