By Rania El Gamal and Regan Doherty
DOHA (Reuters) - Syria's splintered opposition factions started talks in Qatar on Sunday on a common front to gain international respect and recognition and, crucially, better weapons for their quest to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the first concerted attempt to meld opposition groups based abroad and align them with rebels fighting in Syria, to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed more than 32,000 people, devastated swathes of the major Arab country and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.
But there were early signs the discussions in Doha, the capital of Qatar, would not go smoothly.
Tensions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures based abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united opposition.
Four days of talks in Doha are anticipated with the goal of overhauling and broadening the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest of the overseas-based opposition groups, from some 300 members to 400.
Opposition leaders hoped this would pave the way to a follow-up meeting in Doha on Thursday bringing in other opposition factions with the goal of creating an anti-Assad coalition and ending months of political and personal infighting.
"The main aim is to expand the council to include more of the social and political components. There will be new forces in the SNC," Abdulbaset Sieda, current leader of the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Doha ahead of the meeting.
He said the meetings will also elect a new executive committee and leader for the SNC, criticized in the past over perceptions of domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United States called last week for an overhaul of the opposition's leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the SNC and bring in those "in the front lines fighting and dying".
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the meeting in Qatar would be an opportunity to establish a credible opposition.
Internal feuding, a lack of cooperation between leaders abroad and fighters in Syria and the rising clout of autonomous Muslim militants in rebel ranks have deterred Western powers keen to see Assad gone from offering more than moral support.
Influential opposition figure Riad Seif has proposed a structure melding the rebel Free Syrian Army, regional military councils and other insurgent units alongside local civilian bodies and prominent opposition figures.
On Sunday, Seif said the initiative has won the backing of "12 key countries" but would not specify which ones. He said if a decision on the new leadership was made on Thursday, "maybe 100 countries will recognize this new leadership as the legitimate and only representative of the Syrians."
Those countries would convene a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Morocco to support the new elected group, he said.
IMPROVING PITCH FOR ARMS
Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Seif said in an interview with Reuters last week, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and "decide the battle".
Western diplomats based in the Middle East said Washington was supporting an initiative by Seif, which could effectively lessen the sway of the SNC. But SNC leaders criticized what they saw as foreign meddling in the opposition's affairs.
"Syrians are the ones who choose their leadership... There were some (foreign) powers who tried to interfere but I think they backed down," Sieda said.
Opposition sources said the success of the proposal would depend partly on the degree to which he could resist pressure from the SNC to pack the new assembly proposed by Seif with its members.
Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said the assembly proposed by Seif should complement the SNC structure but not replace it.
"We will succeed if we make (the initiative) an operation room for the opposition," he said, adding that the SNC has 15 seats in the assembly proposed by Seif, and wants to increase that to around 22 seats.
SNC leaders said Seif's proposal would suffer if it were perceived as nothing more than a replacement for the SNC.
"We witnessed many trials to bypass the SNC but they all failed and we think that any (new) attempt to bypass the SNC will also fail," veteran opposition figure George Sabra told Reuters.
"There is a fear among some that it (the initiative) would be a substitute for the council... and this could create new disagreements between the Syrians that we don't need."
Others did not expect a final agreement on Thursday.
"We did not say we are rejecting it and we did not accept it. We are talking," Sieda said.
"We welcome a consultative meeting for the powers on the ground and the political factions in the Syrian opposition."
(Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Amman; Editing by Stephen Powell)