New Syrian opposition leader bullish on Assad

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New leader of the exiled Syrian National Council Abdel Basset Sayda (L) sits with his predecessor Burhan Ghalioun (C) and Muhammet Faruq Tayfur (R) on 9 June 2012. (Photo: AFP – Bulent Kilic)

Published Sunday, June 10, 2012

The new leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, has said President Bashar Assad is on his "last legs" and has lost control of several cities.

The SNC elected Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda as its leader at a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, a council statement said.

Sayda, who has been living in exile in Sweden for many years, was the only candidate for the three-month presidency of the SNC at a meeting of 33 members of the councils' general secretariat.

"We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs," Sayda said a few hours after the announcement. "The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling."

The 56-year-old succeeds Burhan Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had presided over the council since it was formed in August of last year.

Ghalioun, another exile living in Paris, has come under criticism for having had his presidency constantly renewed when the council was supposed to represent a democratic alternative to the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Assad.

He was further criticized when the details of his personal emails were hacked by pro-regime forces, and revealed his close relationship with both America and Gulf monarchies such as Qatar.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential player in the council, had initially indicated it wanted Ghalioun to remain president, but then opted to support Sayda after opposition activists inside Syria raised objections to Ghalioun following a third renewal of his term last month.

Adib al-Shihakly, a founding member of the council, had also threatened to resign if Ghalioun remained president.

Opposition sources said the election of Sayda could help enlist more Kurds, who number one million out of Syria's 21 million population, behind the 15-month uprising.

Demonstrations against Assad's rule have been regularly breaking out in Kurdish regions of Syria but without matching the intensity of protests in the rest of the country.

That may be partly because of support by Assad for the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is suspected of being behind assassinations of several anti-Assad Kurdish opposition figures.

Kurdish members of the council have also had open disputes with the remainder of the body over the issue of Kurdish rights and whether a post-Assad Syria would be built around a federal structure similar to that in neighboring Iraq.

Sayda said his priority would be to expand the council and hold talks with other opposition figures to include them in the council, which some have accused of being dominated by Islamists.

"The main task now is to reform the council and re-structure it," he said.

Bassam Ishak, a member of the general secretariat, said Sayda was elected to fulfill demands from within the council and from the opposition inside Syria as well as international powers to make the council more democratic.

Sayda will work on convening a meeting of the whole council after a month, during which a new general secretariat and a new president could be elected, possibly making Sayda a transitional leader, Ishak said.

The SNC has struggled to unify a fragmented opposition to President Assad, with many activists inside Syria condemning the group for encouraging foreign intervention.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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