BEIRUT - Syria’s main opposition group picked a secular Kurd as its new leader Sunday after criticism that the former head was too autocratic and the group was becoming dominated by Islamists.
The opposition, hobbled by disorganization and infighting, is trying to pull together and appear more inclusive by choosing a member of an ethnic minority. But Sunday’s meeting in Istanbul ended without a clear agreement on goals and strategy.
The opposition’s disarray has frustrated Western powers eager to dislodge Syrian President Bashar Assad but unwilling or unable to send in their own forces to do it. Although there has been some willingness to support the rebels with funds and arms, the lack of a cohesive front or a single address has hampered the efforts as the bloodshed intensifies.
On Sunday, government forces shelled rebel-held cities and villages, killing at least 38 people in the rebellious Homs district in central Syria, activists said. It was impossible to independently confirm the death toll.
The choice of Abdulbaset Sieda as head of the Syrian National Council is aimed at achieving several goals for the main opposition group:
- Under outgoing leader Burhan Ghalioun, criticism mounted that the group was dominated by Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Sieda is secular.
- Sieda is also a Kurd, and his selection could be an incentive for Syria’s minority Kurds to take a more active role in the uprising. Up to now they have stayed mostly on the sidelines.
- Selection of a member of a minority group could counter criticism that under Ghalioun, the umbrella organization was too autocratic. Sieda is viewed as a neutral consensus figure.
“This is clearly an opportunity and there is clearly a need for a change,’’ said Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
But key problems remain. The Syrian National Council has only tenuous ties to the Free Syrian Army, which is doing most of the actual fighting against Assad’s forces and is itself little more than a disorganized collection of local militias.
Sieda, 56, a specialist on ancient civilizations, is a longtime exile who lives in Sweden, like his predecessor, who is based in Paris. Activists actually fighting in Syria worry that if they succeed in deposing Assad, the exiles will swoop in and take over.
The council must also gain the confidence of the international community, which is searching for effective ways to hasten the departure of Assad.
Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain said Sunday that he could not rule out military intervention in Syria, saying the situation there is beginning to resemble violence that gripped Bosnia in the 1990s.
Hague said Syria was “on the edge of collapse or of a sectarian civil war, so I don’t think we can rule anything out.’’
Sieda was elected unanimously for a three-month term as president at a council meeting.
Ghalioun led the council since its formation last August, but some Syrian dissidents quit after he repeatedly renewed his three-month term as leader. They accused him of being a liberal face for the Muslim Brotherhood, whom dissidents view as the real force behind the opposition council in exile.
Sieda said his priority would be to expand and restructure the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria’s religious minorities.
“We are now in the process of repairing the relationship between the SNC and the forces working inside Syria so that we may reach common ground among us,’’ Sieda said.
Syria’s estimated 2.5 million Kurds - more than 10 percent of the population - and its Christians, Alawites, and other key minorities have been deterred from joining the uprising by fear for the future if Assad’s secular regime collapses.
Delegates of the main Kurdish umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council, walked out of an Syrian National Council gathering in March after the SNC failed to back its demands for Kurdish rights in a post-Assad state.
Mohieddine Sheik Ali, head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Aleppo, wants full partnership as a Kurdish party.
As the opposition was reorganizing, the death toll mounted with Syrian troops fighting to regain control of rebel-held areas across the country.
The highest was in the central city of Homs and surrounding areas, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The town of Qusair was a target, and regime forces also shelled Daraa and nearby villages, he said.