CAIRO — Syrian dissidents meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday announced the formation of a council that unites most of their country's fractious opposition groups. Activists hailed the news as a potential breakthrough in the monthslong standoff between a largely leaderless protest movement and the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian National Council aims to represent the opposition in dealings with the international community, and to offer an alternative to Assad. That has been lacking since ordinary Syrians began swarming the streets to stage antigovernment demonstrations in March.
At a time when protesters in some areas are increasingly resorting to weapons, activists said they hoped that the creation of a unified opposition body would breathe fresh life into the protests and encourage international support for the uprising.
What form that support should take is one issue on which there is still no consensus, with protesters in Syria increasingly calling for NATO intervention and exiled dissidents remaining adamantly opposed to foreign intercession.
But many activists said they are relieved that the Syrian opposition can now claim a semblance of unity after months of bickering and numerous false starts. Syrians nationwide took to the streets to proclaim support for the 190-member council.
"Finally, after 40 years of oppression and six months of bloodshed, we have a united opposition," said Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American lawyer who is a member of the council and helped organize the effort. "The international community has been waiting a while for an alternative to the Assad regime and a body it can negotiate with and talk to. This is it."
Western diplomats have frequently identified the lack of a unified opposition movement as one of the Syrian uprising's biggest obstacles. Without a coherent opposition or any clear sense of who or what would replace Assad, world powers and many ordinary Syrians have been reluctant to throw their weight behind efforts to unseat him, fearful of a power vacuum in the strategically located nation.