Main Syrian Opposition Group Tries To Unify Factions

The main opposition group in Syria is making a renewed push to unify various strands of the anti-regime movement. The new head of the Syrian National Council wants to broaden the group's appeal, and combat fears that it is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The conflict in Syria continues with no let up in clashes between government troops and rebels looking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Peacekeeping efforts were halted over the weekend by the head of the United Nations monitoring team, who cited intensifying violence. There are not signs of a ceasefire. Many fear the country may be headed towards civil war. To unify and strengthen the anti-regime movement, last week, Syria's leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council, chose a new leader. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this profile.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: News of Abdulbaset Sieda's election to the head of the SNC did not set off shockwaves. He's a Syrian Kurd, a PhD-carrying academic who spent years outside Syria, in Libya and Sweden. But some see him as just the man to dispel the SNC's image as a front for Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Pausing for a quick cup of tea on a crowded Istanbul sidewalk, Sieda doesn't offer any magical solutions to the divisions that have plagued the Syrian opposition. But his comments reflect his hope that most of them can agree to work together on the major issues, if not unite under a single banner.

ABDULBASET SIEDA: We will try with all the groups, all the time. Some of them, maybe they don't like to be a part of the National Council. We respect that, but we said we can work together for the better future for our young generation.

KENYON: For those who know Sieda from his time on the SNC executive committee, his Kurdish credentials are less important than his promise to get the council's house in order. Abdulahad Astepho, a Christian member of the SNC, says, yes, obviously it sends a signal to Kurds and other minorities that they need not fear that a post-Assad Syria will quickly veer toward a Sunni Muslim theocracy.

ABDULAHAD ASTEPHO: It will give guarantees to the other minorities, yeah. But I think the most important thing to say, I think he's the man of the period. We are entering a new era of the revolution.

KENYON: The challenges for the SNC now include showing the world that it understands basic democratic concepts, such as peaceful transfers of power and respect for minority rights. But inside Syria, the priorities are more basic and urgent, and Sieda's elevation seems tangential at best, even among minorities. Kurdish human rights activist and journalist Muhyedin Isso says it will take more than symbolic moves to bring Syrian minorities under the SNC umbrella.

MUHYEDIN ISSO: (Through translator) Dr. Abdulbaset Sieda is a nationalist. He's a Syrian. He's a conciliatory figure and we welcome him as the head of the SNC. But he's an independent and he's not seen as a Kurdish leader inside Syria, certainly not by the main parties.

KENYON: There's also the question of whether the SNC has time to get its house in order before the situation on the ground turns into a full-blown civil war. Renegade Syrian soldiers and other opposition fighters say, recently, heavier weapons have reached rebel hands, and reports of government armored vehicles being destroyed are increasing.

An SNC executive committee member from Hama province, Tawfik Dunia, says the reports of escalating violence are troubling, but he says rebel fighters showed restraint for months while the regime's forces continued their bloody assaults.

TAWFIK DUNIA: (Through translator) We're watching a regime at war against its own citizens, and it's extremely hard for us to tell our people that they can't defend themselves. Maybe we need Bashar al-Assad to go, and then we can talk about laying down the guns.

KENYON: The Syrian regime insists that as long as armed gangs, its term for the rebels, keep their weapons, it has an obligation to press its military operations to restore order. And while the new SNC leadership works to get its house in order, the situation on the ground seems to grow worse daily.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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