Kurdish activist Abdulbaset Sieda, who was named on Sunday to lead the opposition Syrian National Council, is known for his integrity, but insiders say he has little political experience and some Syrian Kurds claim he does not represent their interests.
Sieda 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,” Sieda said a few hours after he was named as the new SNC president.
“The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling.”
Sieda, born in 1956 in Amuda, a mostly Kurdish city in northeastern Syria, 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 religious groups.
Sieda once told AFP that he “worked secretly in politics” for a long time against Assad’s regime while working abroad as an academic.
He is considered an expert in ancient civilisations and author of a number of books on Syria’s Kurdish minority.
He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Damascus University and was a professor in Libya for three years until he left for exile in Sweden in 1994, where he switched his interest to ancient civilisations.
Sources close to him say Sieda was active within Syria’s Kurdish movement which staged several uprisings against the regime in past decades.
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”.
“Sieda does not have a lot of political experience, he doesn’t have a long history in the opposition,” said Monzer Makhous, co-ordinator 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 a member of the coalition’s executive board.
Saida’s predecessor, Burhan Ghalioun, stepped down last month after being criticised for ignoring the Local Co-ordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground, and for giving the Muslim Brotherhood too large a role.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sieda defended his predecessor, stating that Ghalioun had not made many mistakes. He did acknowledge mistakes had been made by the SNC as a whole, and he would be working to address those errors.
“People on the outside may be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t much difference between the two men. They may be wondering what difference the change might make, and whether or not it was merely symbolic,” said Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul.
“[Sieda] has a double burden to carry; the running of the SNC, but he also has to deal with the issue of the Kurdish split within the Syrian oppositon.”
“The Kurds have huge doubts about the SNC. At the last meeting held in Istanbul, the Kurdish bloc actually walked out,” our correspondent said.
“Many Kurds feel he does not represent their interests and aspirations, as some have pointed out he hasn’t spoken out on the issue of federalism and autonomy.”
Syria’s Kurds, who represent about nine per cent of Syria’s 23 million population, complain of persistent discrimination, and demand recognition for their Kurdish culture and language, and that they be treated as full-fledged citizens.
A fellow Kurdish activist, Massu Akko, described Sieda 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.