Syrian National Council elects Kurd as its new leader

By Mariam Karouny, Reuters

Posted at Jun 10 2012 05:44 PM | Updated as of Jun 11 2012 01:44 AM

ISTANBUL - The main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, elected Kurdish activist Abdelbasset Sida as its leader at a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, a council statement said.

Sida, who has been living in exile in Sweden for many years, was the only candidate for the three-month presidency of the SNC at a meeting of 33 members of the councils' general secretariat.

The 56-year-old succeeds Burhan Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had presided over the council since it was formed in August of last year.

Ghalioun, another exile living in Paris, has come under criticism for having had his presidency constantly renewed when the council was supposed to represent a democratic alternative to the authoritarian rule of President Basher al-Assad.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential player in the council, had initially indicated it wanted Ghalioun to remain president, but then opted to support Sida after opposition activists inside Syria raised objections to Ghalioun following a third renewal of his term last month.

Adib al-Shihakly, a founding member of the council, had also threatened to resign if Ghalioun remained president.

Opposition sources said the election of Sida could help enlist more Kurds, who number one million out of Syria's 21 million population, behind the 15-month uprising.

Demonstrations against Assad's rule have been regularly breaking out in Kurdish regions of Syria but without matching the intensity of protests in the rest of the country.

That may be partly because of support by Assad for the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is suspected of being behind assassinations of several anti-Assad Kurdish opposition figures since the revolt erupted in March 2011.

Kurdish members of the council have also had open disputes with the remainder of the body over the issue of Kurdish rights and whether a post-Assad Syria would be built around a federal structure similar to that in neighbouring Iraq.

Sida said his priority would be to expand the council and hold talks with other opposition figures to include them in the council, which some have accused of being dominated by Islamists.

"The main task now is to reform the council and re-structure it," Sida told Reuters.

Bassam Ishak, a member of the general secretariat, said Sida was elected to fulfil demands from within the council and from the opposition inside Syria as well as international powers to make the council more democratic.

Sida will work on convening a meeting of the whole council after a month, during which a new general secretariat and a new president could be elected, possibly making Sida a transitional leader, Ishak said. (Writing and additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Jon Hemming and Todd Eastham)