By: Mariam Karouny
ISTANBUL, Turkey – The new leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group urged world powers on Sunday to protect civilians from President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown and take decisive action at the United Nations that could be implemented by force.
Abdelbasset Sida, elected leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC) at a meeting in Istanbul, said countries should “stop the killing machine in a decisive decision under (United Nations) Chapter 7″.
If the U.N. Security Council could not reach agreement, then countries could take actions outside a U.N. mandate, he said.
Sida, 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 council’s general secretariat.
After his election he sought to reassure Syria’s minority Christian and Alawite communities, who fear the mainly Sunni Muslim uprising could threaten their existence in the country, that their future would be secure.
“There will be no discrimination based on religion, faith or ethnicity,” Sida told a news conference.
The 56-year-old succeeds Burhan Ghalioun, a liberal opposition figure who had presided over the council since it was formed last August.
Ghalioun, also an exile and who lives in Paris, had come under criticism for having had his presidency constantly renewed when the council was supposed to represent a democratic alternative to Assad’s authoritarian rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential player in the council, had initially indicated it wanted Ghalioun to remain president, but then opted to support Sida after opposition activists inside Syria raised objections to Ghalioun after a third renewal of his term last month.
Adib al-Shihakly, a founding member of the council, had threatened to resign if Ghalioun remained president.
Assad’s opponents have been plagued by division since the outbreak of protests against his rule in March last year. The SNC has not won clear international endorsement and has little influence over protesters and activists inside Syria.
Opposition sources said the election of Sida 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 been regularly breaking out in Kurdish regions of Syria but without matching 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 assassinations of several anti-Assad Kurdish opposition figures since the revolt erupted.
Kurdish members of the council have 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 neighboring Iraq.
Sida said his priority was to expand the council and seek to include other opposition figures. Some have accused the council of being dominated by Islamists.
Bassam Ishak, a member of the general secretariat, said Sida was elected to fulfill demands from within the council and from the opposition inside Syria as well as international powers to make the body more democratic.
Sida would 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 Sida a transitional leader, Ishak said.