New Syria opposition chief Kurdish moderate
BEIRUT - Agence France-Presse
A leader of the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC), Abdel Basset Sayda, waits on June 9, 2012 before the start of a meeting in Istanbul to pick a new leader after the resignation of Burhan Ghalioun last month to avert divisions in the opposition bloc. AFP PhotoKurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda, who was named today to lead the opposition Syrian National Council, is known for his integrity but insiders say he has little political experience.
He takes over the exiled dissident coalition at a time of mounting tensions between activists and rebel fighters on the ground inside Syria and the emigres who have been the main point of contact with the outside world.
"We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs," Sayda told AFP a few hours after he was named as the new SNC president.
"The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling." Asked about his ambitions as SNC leader, Sayda said the opposition bloc "would focus its efforts on the international community to take a decisive move against the regime, which continues to carry out massacres." "We want to strengthen links with activists on the ground and the Free Syrian Army, who we will support with all our means," he said.
Sayda's predecessor, Burhan Ghalioun, stepped down last month after being criticised for ignoring the Local Coordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground, and for giving the Muslim Brotherhood too large a role.
"There are great challenges ahead... We will work towards the restructuring of the SNC and the implementation of reforms," he said.
Sayda is seen as a consensus candidate capable of reconciling the rival factions within the SNC and of broadening its appeal among Syria's myriad of ethnic and confessional groups.
Born in 1956 in Amuda, a mostly Kurdish city in northeastern Syria, Sayda is an expert in ancient civilisations and author of a number of books on Syria's Kurdish minority but is Arabic educated.
He does not belong to any political party and his name is not familiar to many Syrians but SNC officials say he is a "conciliatory" figure, "honest" and "independent".
The SNC has been criticised for not representing the full diversity of Arabs, Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Druze and other ethnic and religious groups in Syria.
Syria's Kurds represent around nine percent of Syria's 23 million population. Most of them live in the north of the country and in Damascus.
They complain of persistent discrimination, and demand recognition for their Kurdish culture and language, and that they be treated as full-fledged citizens.
A dozen Kurdish political groups are banned by Syrian authorities.
"Sayda does not have a lot of political experience, he doesn't have a long history in the opposition," said Monzer Makhous, coordinator for the SNC's external relations in Europe.
But "he has good relations with everyone," added George Sabra, a veteran activist based in Paris, who is member of the coalition's executive board.
Sayda is also on the board and heads the bloc's human rights department. His key challenge will be to turn the SNC into a credible interlocutor for the international community.
His friend and fellow Kurdish militant Massu Akko describes Sayda as "honest, level-headed and cultured." "He is very loyal to Syria and to the Kurdish question, but he is a moderate. It is therefore a message sent to the Kurds and all the minorities," said the SNC's external relations chief, Basma Kodmani.
Sayda, 55, is married and has four daughters and a son.
He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Damascus University and was a university professor in Libya for three years until he left for exile in Sweden in 1994, where he switched his interest to ancient civilisations.
Sayda once told AFP that he "worked secretly in politics" for a long time against Assad's regime.
Sources close to him say he was active within Syria's Kurdish movement which staged several uprisings against the regime in past decades.