Can new head of Syrian opposition group
bind disparate factions?
By Jonathan Head, BBC News, Istanbul
Syrian opposition's compromise candidate
The new president of the Syrian National Council,
Abdel Basset Sayda, a Kurd, speaks during a news
conference in Istanbul June 10, 2012. The main
Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian
National Council, elected Kurdish activist Sida as
its leader at a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, a
council statement said. Sida succeeds Burhan
Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had
presided over the council since it was formed in
August last year.. Photo: Reuters
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ISTANBUL, — How much difference can a
change of leader make to Syria's diverse opposition
The Syrian National Council's former president,
Burhan Ghalioun, faced almost constant criticism -
that he took decisions without consulting the SNC's
members, and that he was too easily swayed by the
Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest and best organised
group in the council.
SNC activists describe the new leader, Abdulbaset
Sayda, as a decent conciliatory man, untainted by
ties to any faction. That made him an acceptable
An academic who specialised in the study of ancient
civilisations, he has lived in exile in Sweden since
He is also an ethnic Kurd. Kurds make up around 9%
of the Syrian population, but the biggest Kurdish
parties in Syria have so far refused to join the SNC
because it will not give guarantees of Kurdish
However, Mr Sayda has not pushed for those
guarantees either, which will make it hard for him
to win over disaffected Kurdish groups.
Some activists have also described Mr Sayda as
politically naive, unable to navigate the swirl of
emotions, loyalties and interests that now
characterise Syria's multifarious opposition
But perhaps this is missing the point.
The SNC was established last year to create a single
contact point between all those Syrians campaigning
for a change of regime, and sympathetic countries
and organisations in the rest of the world.
It is an umbrella movement, a coalition, whose
members have backgrounds and ideologies that reflect
the diversity of Syria.
Some are left-wing, secular activists who have spent
many years in prison or in exile. Others are
veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have lived
in exile since their failed uprising against
President Bashar al-Assad's father in the early
There are successful businessmen, and smart young
Syrians with Western educations. And there are those
claiming to speak for the grassroots movements
fighting on the ground,www.ekurd.net
with their roots in the village or town-based
uprisings against the Assad government.
None of these groups had any experience of working
together before last year. All have been marked by
the fear and paranoia instilled by decades of
So even choosing a leader they all trust is
difficult. Expecting that leader to impose authority
and efficiency on the SNC is unrealistic.
Learning the business of
Younger activists are understandably frustrated by
the SNC's impotence. They speak of their anger
against those older activists they believe are
trying to dominate the SNC to ensure they get good
positions in post-Assad Syria, and neglecting the
needs of the fighters on the ground.
They are the ones pushing for a wholesale
restructuring of the council, to make it more
But one of the SNC's founding members, Basma Kodmani,
explained that this is the inevitable nature of a
We have idealists and political opportunists under
the same roof, and we have to learn to get along,
she said - this is politics, something Syria has not
had for more than 40 years.
The SNC's biggest problem is that it has been unable
to deliver what opposition forces fighting inside
the country wanted from it - international military
intervention, and arms supplies.
That is not the SNC's fault. But it does raise
difficult questions about what purpose it serves.
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