Syrian Opposition Elects Kurd to try to Unite Movement

Posted June 10th, 2012 at 6:55 am (UTC-5)
Leave a comment

Syria's main exiled opposition group has elected a Kurdish academic to try to unify the movement after months of infighting, as activists report dozens of civilians killed in government attacks around the country.

Senior members of the opposition Syrian National Council chose Abdulbaset Sieda to be the group's new leader at a meeting in Istanbul early Sunday. Sieda is in his mid-50s and lives in exile in Sweden. SNC members including Abdel Hamid Al Attassi described Sieda as a consensus figure.

“He is an academician. He is also well-known, a moderate man. We shouldn't claim that he has Islamic tendencies or secular tendencies. He has been approved and accepted by everyone.”

Sieda replaces Burhan Ghalioun, who agreed step down last month under criticism of his leadership.

The SNC has been plagued by internal rivalries since it was formed last year to try to present a credible alternative to the autocratic government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ghalioun's critics complained that he gave Islamists too powerful a role in the SNC and did not do enough to coordinate with committees of youth activists organizing protests inside Syria.

Speaking to reporters in Istanbul on Saturday, Sieda said the SNC should continue to reform itself to include more opposition figures.

“We will continue our reform and we will do our new structure in the council. And it's most important to us that all of our members (are) active and connected with the opposition. Also, we will continue and we will try (to ensure) that the SNC will become the real representative for the people in Syria.”

Syrian activists said government forces killed at least 52 civilians on Saturday in the latest crackdowns on dissent. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the day's highest death toll was in Daraa, with 20 people killed in a pre-dawn bombardment of the southern town where a pro-democracy uprising began 15 months ago.

Activists said more people were killed in government shelling of the rebellious central city of Homs, and in early-morning gunbattles between government and rebel forces in central Damascus. The casualties could not be independently confirmed.

Sieda's election as SNC chief may help the group to boost its support among Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population and have largely stayed on the sidelines of the anti-Assad revolt. Many Syrian Kurds fear they would continue to suffer discrimination if the majority Sunni-led opposition overthrows Mr. Assad's minority Alawite-led government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Syria of massacring its own civilians with help from Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, both allies of the Assad government. He spoke Sunday at the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting.

“It is a sleight carried out not only by the Syrian government, it is being helped by Iran and Hezbollah, and the world must today see the focused axis of evil: Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. The face of this axis of evil has been exposed in its full ugliness. Everybody should understand what kind of environment we live in.''

Earlier, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz accused the Syrian government of committing “genocide” and called for international military intervention in the crisis. In an interview on Israeli radio Sunday, he said world powers have failed to take action and criticized Russia for selling weapons to Mr. Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow would support Mr. Assad's departure from power if the Syrian people agree on it.

It was not clear if Lavrov's comment marked a softening of Russia's support for the Syrian president. Russia has repeatedly blocked Western and Arab efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on his government.

Speaking at a Moscow news conference, Lavrov reiterated Russia's rejection of any foreign military intervention in the Syrian conflict. He also repeated his call for nations supporting and opposing Mr. Assad to join an international conference to salvage a Syria peace plan drafted by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.