Syria opposition group pushes back against critics
DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- The head of Syria's main opposition group warned Tuesday that forces trying to undermine his Syrian National Council are inadvertently prolonging the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Abdelbaset Sieda spoke at an SNC convention in Qatar as the group tried to push back against U.S. criticism and efforts to form a new opposition leadership that would likely sideline the SNC.
The council, which was formed a year ago, has been slow to include activists and fighters from Syria who are risking their lives to topple the regime. Made up mostly of exiles and academics, the SNC has appeared increasingly irrelevant and out of touch as the conflict in Syria has escalated and the focus has shifted to the battlefield, where control of Syria is almost certain to be decided.
Syrian dissident Riad Seif, who is leading the effort to create a new opposition leadership, said the SNC has "failed."
"Nowadays, we need leadership to guide the revolution in this very difficult period, and we need an authority to look after millions of Syrians who have nothing," the 66-year-old Seif, who is battling cancer, told The Associated Press on Tuesday, the third day of the SNC convention in Qatar.
Seif has proposed setting up a 50-member leadership group in which the SNC would have only 15 seats, to make room for activists and local leaders from inside Syria. Seif says the idea has won broad international backing, and has portrayed it as the only way forward for the opposition to garner badly needed foreign aid and political support. Seif has told reporters he is not seeking a leadership post.
The U.S. has become increasingly frustrated with the SNC's failure to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized the group, saying its leadership days are over and calling for a major shakeup.
Seif's plan is to be discussed Thursday at a Doha meeting to be attended by the SNC and smaller opposition groups. SNC officials have said they believe their Qatari hosts will exert pressure for a quick agreement in Doha.
In a speech to the SNC convention Tuesday, Sieda, the outgoing SNC chief, said his group will attend the meeting with an open mind, but also raise a counter proposal. Sieda said those participating in Thursday's talks should discuss setting up an interim government that could run rebel-held areas in Syria, instead of arguing over leadership posts.
Also in Doha, representatives of the key countries that oppose the Assad regime, including the U.S., were meeting Tuesday to review the plans for reorganizing the opposition.
SNC members fear that Seif's plan will essentially sideline their group.
In his speech, Sieda did not refer specifically to Seif's plan, but said that "we emphasize the need to preserve the SNC as a basic component" of the Syrian opposition. "Any action targeting the council (SNC) will intentionally or unintentionally prolong the life of the regime," he said.
Sieda acknowledged that the SNC has made mistakes, but said it's trying to address them.
During the convention, which began Sunday, the SNC voted to broaden its base, nearly doubling the size of its general assembly to some 420. SNC officials also said the reforms significantly increased representation of activists in Syria.