The new leader of Syria’s exiled opposition has called on all members of the Damascus government to defect amid raging violence that has claimed thousands of lives.
“We call upon all officials in the regime and in the institutions to defect from the regime,” Abdulbaset Sieda, who was named Sunday to lead the opposition Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Istanbul.
Sieda also reached out to minority groups in Syria, following criticism of the SNC for failing to represent the country’s full array of ethnic and religious groups including Arabs, Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Druze and others.
“We would like to reassure all sects and groups, especially Alawites and Christians, that the future of Syria will be for the all of us,” he said. “There will be no discrimination based on gender or sects. The new Syria will be a democratic state.”
Sieda, a Kurdish activist, was elected as the SNC’s new leader at a conference in Turkey, replacing the opposition’s first leader, Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun, who stepped down last month in the face of mounting splits that were undermining the group’s credibility.
Sieda, who has been living in exile in Sweden for many years, was the only candidate for the three-month presidency of the SNC at a meeting of 33 members of the councils’ general secretariat on Saturday.
He accused the Syrian government of being on its “last legs”, and that it has lost control of several cities.
“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” said Sieda a few hours after he was named as the new SNC president.
“The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling.”
The 56-year-old succeeds Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had presided over the council since it was formed in August of last year.
Ghalioun, an exile living in Paris, has come under criticism for having had his presidency constantly renewed when the council was supposed to represent a democratic alternative to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul, said Ghalioun struck a “defensive tone” in his parting remarks.
“He was clear that he was handing the baton to Dr Sieda, and other members of the council said the era of Burhan Ghalioun is over,” our correspondent said on Sunday.
“What struck out [from Sieda’s acceptance speech] was his inclusiveness. He name-checked all the main players and paid tribute to the people in jail, the people who have died. He mentioned these groups and went on to say their dream of an inclusive Syria was still alive,” said McNaught.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential player in the council, had initially indicated it wanted Ghalioun to remain president, but then opted to support Sieda after opposition activists inside Syria raised objections to Ghalioun following a third renewal of his term last month.
Adib al-Shihakly, a founding member of the council, had also threatened to resign if Ghalioun remained president.
Opposition sources said the election of Sieda could help enlist more Kurds, who number one million out of Syria’s 21 million population, behind the 15-month uprising.
Demonstrations against Assad’s rule have taken place in Kurdish regions of Syria but they have not matched the intensity of protests in the rest of the country.
That may be partly because of support by Assad for the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is suspected of being behind the killings of several anti-Assad Kurdish opposition figures since the revolt erupted in March 2011.
Kurdish members of the council have also had open disputes with the remainder of the body over the issue of Kurdish rights and whether a post-Assad Syria would be built around a federal structure similar to that in neighbouring Iraq.
Sieda, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, said his priority would be to expand the council and hold talks with other opposition figures to include them in the council, which some have accused of being dominated by conservatives.
“The main task now is to reform the council and re-structure it,” Sieda said.
Bassam Ishak, a member of the general secretariat, said Sieda was elected to fulfill demands from within the council and from the opposition inside Syria as well as international powers to make the council more democratic.
Sieda will work on convening a meeting of the whole council after a month, during which a new general secretariat and a new president could be elected, possibly making Sieda a transitional leader, Ishak said.