Syria opposition coalition elects new chief

BEIRUT - Syria's key opposition National Coalition elected at dawn Monday new chief, Khaled Khoja, who received backing from both secular and moderate Islamist blocs, a coalition member told AFP.

Khoja is the first member of the Turkmen minority elected to the post and is seen as more independent than his predecessor Hadi al-Bahra, who had strong ties to Saudi Arabia.

"Khoja won with support from the democratic and secular forces as well as moderate Islamists within the coalition," member Samir Nashar told AFP.

He said the election showed a "decline in the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood," which had backed Khoja's rival Nasr Hariri.

Khoja won with 56 votes, six more than Hariri. The election took place in Istanbul, where the coalition is based.

The National Coalition is the internationally-recognised representative of Syria's uprising, but is often accused of being out-of-touch with reality on the ground in the country's nearly-four-year war.

It has twice held talks with the Syrian regime that achieved little, and is currently debating a new plan by Damascus ally Russia to restart dialogue on a solution to the conflict.

The coalition has also been riven by conflict between its regional backers, including arch-rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey too has vied for influence, including by backing the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the coalition.

Khoja has lived in exile in Turkey for decades, after leaving Syria in the 1980s following two stints in prison.

But despite his ties to Turkey, his candidacy was not backed by Ankara, which supported his rival Hariri.

Coalition member Nashar, who is close to Khoja, expressed hope that "the new leadership will work to return the Syrian revolution to the right path."

Nashar, who has been critical of Islamist forces in the coalition, also hoped that Khoja would strive to "build a national front committed to the revolution... and establish a pluralist civil state in Syria without exclusion or marginalisation."

Khoja has a history of opposition activism, and was a founding member of the Syrian National Council, one of the key components of the coalition.

He served as the National Coalition's representative in Turkey before his election as president.

Born in Damascus in 1965, Khoja studied first in Libya after going into exile before settling in Turkey, he graduated in medicine from University of Izmir in 1994.