Syrian opposition group elects new leader


BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, has elected a Kurdish dissident as its new leader at a meeting in Turkey, a council statement said.

Abdulbaset Sieda, a 56-year-old activist who has been living in exile in Sweden for many years, was the only candidate to replace liberal opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun for the three-month presidency. He was elected unanimously during an SNC meeting Saturday night in Istanbul that stretched into early hours Sunday.

The Paris-based Ghalioun, who had presided over the council since it was created last August, recently offered to step down over mounting criticism of his leadership and repeated renewals of his three-month term. Several prominent Syrian dissidents have quit the group calling it an "autocratic" organization no better than the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Assad.

They also complained the group was dominated by Islamists, including the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian opposition has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting since the popular revolt against Assad began 15 months ago. Its international backers have repeatedly appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit. The SNC itself has been plagued by infighting, hampering efforts by Western and Arab nations to help the opposition.

Sieda is a secular member of Syria's minority Kurd community. He is seen as a neutral, consensus figure and has said his priority would be to expand the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria's religious minorities.

His elevation to the post of SNC chief could be part of an attempt to appeal to Syria's significant Kurdish minority, which has largely stayed on the sidelines of the uprising. The community is deeply suspicious that Sunni Arabs who dominate the opposition will be no more likely to provide them greater rights than what they have had under Assad's regime.

"He is an academician. He's 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," Abdel Hamid Al Attassi, a member of the SNC, said of Sieda.

Thousands have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March last year. The U.N.'s latest estimate is 9,000 dead, but that is from April and the world body has been unable to update it since. Syrian activists put the toll at more than 13,000. International envoy Kofi Annan brokered a cease-fire that went into effect on April 12 but has since been violated every day by both sides of the conflict.