Syrian opposition elects Kurd to top role


SYRIAN FORCES yesterday shelled rebel strongholds across the country as the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council, meeting in Istanbul, elected as its leader Abdelbasset Sieda, who promised to unite all external and internal factions under the council umbrella.

Declaring the “regime is on its last legs”, Mr Sieda, a Kurd who has lived for many years in Sweden, said “multiplying massacres and shellings show that [the government] is struggling”. He pledged to reform and restructure the council, which has been sharply criticised by the international community and by Syrians in the country for factionalism and ineffectiveness.

Mr Sieda took over from Burhan Ghalioun, an academic teaching in Paris who headed the body since its establishment last September. By appointing a Kurd, the council hopes to reassure members of Syria’s minority communities they will not suffer if the secular regime is ousted. The Kurds have been divided over the council’s activities, and those who had joined the council withdrew.

Many Syrians are wary of the council, on which the Muslim Brotherhood has strong representation.

Fighting against government troops supported by helicopter gunships took place at a rebel base near Haffa in the mountains, opposition activists reported. The Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 58 soldiers had been killed and 200 wounded since the operation began on Tuesday. The official news agency Sana reported “terrorist groups” in Haffa had attacked civilians, set fire to the public hospital and forced families to flee their homes.

At least 35 people were said to have been killed during army barrages on rebel-held areas in the city of Homs and the nearby towns of Qusair, Talbiseh and Rastan, from which the renegade Free Syrian Army has mounted attacks on army patrols and checkpoints, the opposition said.

British foreign secretary William Hague warned the situation resembled that in Bosnia in the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia was embroiled in a sectarian civil war. He urged Moscow to use the leverage it has with Damascus to end the violence, and said the only option was to adopt the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

To promote implementation of his plan, Mr Annan has called for the creation of a contact group representing all countries involved in the Syrian crisis, but the US, Britain and France have rejected the inclusion of Iran, Syria’s main regional ally. On Saturday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated his country’s rejection of external intervention but indicated Moscow would not block the exit of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad if “the Syrians agree [on his] departure”.

His remarks coincided with news of shelling of the city of Deraa that reportedly killed 17.