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In bid for unity, Syrian opposition group picks Kurd to lead

The election of Abdelbaset Sieda to the presidency of the Syrian National Council is being held up as a sign that a post-Assad Syria would be a safe place for all minorities.

Shaam News Network/AP
This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Friday, June 8, purports to show a girl holding the Syrian revolutionary flag during a demonstration in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria.

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As fighting intensified between the Syrian regime and rebel fighters this weekend, the main Syrian opposition group chose a new president in a bid to unify the fractious organization and thereby gain greater international support.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has struggled since its inception last year to establish itself as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and thus has failed to secure the kind of logistical, humanitarian, and military support that helped Libyan rebels to oust Muammar Qaddafi.

The pressure is on for the SNC's newly elected president, Abdelbaset Sieda, to unify the council if he wants greater international assistance, writes The Daily Star of Lebanon in an editorial.

… Their disunity and differences have, until now, been the stumbling block in their progress in deposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This fragmentation has served as a key justification for those – whether in the West or in the Arab world – who have claimed that they would otherwise provide greater support, material or otherwise, to the rebels.

The election of Sida comes at a critical time, when violence appears to be intensifying at an alarming rate. Civil war is now in full swing, despite the tendency for commentators, politicians and journalists to define it otherwise.

But the SNC has few ties with the Free Syrian Army, the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime, reports the Washington Post in a piece evaluating the pros and cons of Sieda's election. The SNC has also faced criticism from Syrian activists on the ground that it is out of touch, since it is comprised of Syrian expats and its conferences have all been held abroad.

The SNC's choice of Mr. Sieda, a secular Kurd who has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria's 1 million Kurds, Reuters reports. Opposition figures are also portraying his election as a sign that Syria's various minorities, who worry about their safety in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population, would be safe. The SNC's three-month rotating presidency had been held by a Sunni since last summer.

“We will expand and extend the base of the council so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade," Sieda said to reporters at a news conference, according to The New York Times.

"There will be no discrimination based on religion, faith or ethnicity," he added.

While there have been some anti-Assad protests in Kurdish parts of the country, support for the opposition is not as strong there and one key Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, is suspected of assassinating Kurdish anti-Assad figures, according to Reuters. Most Kurds have refused to participate in the council because it has not declared its support for semiautonomy for Kurds nor guaranteed their rights.

In addition to being an attempt to woo Kurds, Sieda's election is also seen as an attempt to defuse criticism that the council has become autocratic after 10 months with a Sunni at the helm.

“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person – because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee, according to The New York Times.

“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” she added. “Personalization leads to polarization.”

But critics say Sieda, who ran unopposed was able to be a consensus candidate "precisely because he represents no one," writes the Times. Without constituents he is no threat to the dominant forces on the council and will lack authority, they say.

On his first day as president of the council, Sieda called on the United Nations to authorize military action on behalf of the Syrian opposition and, barring that, said the countries should take action without a UN mandate, Reuters reports.

The Daily Star warns that continued disunity could abet the regime's brutality.

Should Sida fail in his attempt to unite the Syrian opposition, it will only provide the regime with more breathing space in which to continue with its security solution, and the country’s tragic landscape will continue to be dotted with killing fields.

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