Syrian opposition’s compromise candidate – By Jonathan Head
How much difference can a change of leader make to Syria’s diverse opposition movement?
The Syrian National Council’s former president, Burhan Ghalioun, faced almost constant criticism – that he took decisions without consulting the SNC’s members, and that he was too easily swayed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest and best organised group in the council.
SNC activists describe the new leader, Abdulbaset Sayda, as a decent conciliatory man, untainted by ties to any faction. That made him an acceptable compromise candidate.
An academic who specialised in the study of ancient civilisations, he has lived in exile in Sweden since 1994.
He is also an ethnic Kurd. Kurds make up around 9% of the Syrian population, but the biggest Kurdish parties in Syria have so far refused to join the SNC because it will not give guarantees of Kurdish autonomy.
However, Mr Sayda has not pushed for those guarantees either, which will make it hard for him to win over disaffected Kurdish groups.
Some activists have also described Mr Sayda as politically naive, unable to navigate the swirl of emotions, loyalties and interests that now characterise Syria’s multifarious opposition movement.
But perhaps this is missing the point.
The SNC was established last year to create a single contact point between all those Syrians campaigning for a change of regime, and sympathetic countries and organisations in the rest of the world.
It is an umbrella movement, a coalition, whose members have backgrounds and ideologies that reflect the diversity of Syria.
Some are left-wing, secular activists who have spent many years in prison or in exile. Others are veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have lived in exile since their failed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s father in the early 1980s.
There are successful businessmen, and smart young Syrians with Western educations. And there are those claiming to speak for the grassroots movements fighting on the ground, with their roots in the village or town-based uprisings against the Assad government.
None of these groups had any experience of working together before last year. All have been marked by the fear and paranoia instilled by decades of intense repression.
So even choosing a leader they all trust is difficult. Expecting that leader to impose authority and efficiency on the SNC is unrealistic.
Learning the business of politics
Younger activists are understandably frustrated by the SNC’s impotence. They speak of their anger against those older activists they believe are trying to dominate the SNC to ensure they get good positions in post-Assad Syria, and neglecting the needs of the fighters on the ground.
They are the ones pushing for a wholesale restructuring of the council, to make it more democratic.
But one of the SNC’s founding members, Basma Kodmani, explained that this is the inevitable nature of a broad-based movement.
We have idealists and political opportunists under the same roof, and we have to learn to get along, she said – this is politics, something Syria has not had for more than 40 years.
The SNC’s biggest problem is that it has been unable to deliver what opposition forces fighting inside the country wanted from it – international military intervention, and arms supplies.
That is not the SNC’s fault. But it does raise difficult questions about what purpose it serves.