- Associated Press - Saturday, December 8, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian rebel commanders have elected a new 30-member leadership council and a chief of staff, a senior rebel said Saturday in a major step toward unifying the opposition that is fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

The Supreme Military Council, which was chosen Friday during a meeting in Turkey, will work with the political leadership that was chosen last month in Qatar.

But the al-Qaida inspired group Jabhat al-Nusra, was excluded, the rebel official said, as the rebels apparently move to sideline the extremists who have proven skilled fighters but raised concerns among Western allies.

The announcement came as the Syrian Foreign Ministry claimed that anti-government forces might use chemical weapons, saying rebels have recently captured a chlorine processing plant east of the northern city of Aleppo. The warning was made in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

The rebel official, a senior member of the main rebel group the Free Syrian Army, said more than 550 rebel commanders and representatives began meeting Wednesday in the Turkish resort of Antalya. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal the meeting’s outcome.

The fight to oust Assad has long been hobbled by the opposition’s inability to forge a united front and command structure. The move was the most serious attempt by the rebels, who are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to fix that.

If successful, it could be a turning point in the conflict as the rebels close in on the capital Damascus, Assad’s seat of power.

“The aim of this meeting was to unify the armed opposition to bring down the regime,” said another rebel commander from the Damascus areas who attended the meeting. “It also aims to get the situation under control once the regime falls.”

The local commander, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, added that the rebels command decided to divide Syria into five regions that will be under the command of the assistants of the FSA chief of staff.

Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss was named as the group’s chief of staff, according to the official in Antalya. Idriss is a former army general who defected and joined the opposition and played a role in the fighting on the ground in the past months, he said.

Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who headed the FSA’s Military Council, was removed from his post and will play no role in the future, the FSA official said. He added that the group’s main commander Riad al-Asaad will continue to hold the title, but it will be largely symbolic.

The rebels said that Jabhat al-Nusra was not invited to the meetings and is not part of the new command. The Damascus commander said the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham or the Free People of Damascus also was not invited.

Jabhat al-Nusra is known to include many foreign fighters while Ahrar al-Sham is mostly made up of hard-line Islamists.

The FSA command appears to want to sideline extremist groups that have been playing a bigger role in recent months.

On Wednesday, a U.S. official said the Obama administration is preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization. The step will freeze any assets that members have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from providing the group with material support.

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