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Syria: Assad on 'last legs,' says new exile opposition chief

June 10, 2012 |  7:12 am

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BEIRUT — The best-known Syrian exile opposition group, the Syrian National Council, named a Kurdish exile Sunday as its new chief in the latest bid to help unify the fractious opposition fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

The new leader, Abdulbasset Sieda, a Swedish-based academic, asserted in an interview with Agence France-Press that escalating government attacks and alleged atrocities demonstrated that Assad’s once-formidable control of Syria  was teetering after almost 15 months of rebellion.

“The regime is on its last legs,” AFP quoted Sieda as saying. “The multiplying massacres and shelling show that it is struggling.”

At least three major mass killings have been reported in recent weeks, the most notorious being the murder last month of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, in the central town of Houla. Each side has blamed the other for the massacres, which have drawn international condemnation and underscored  the failure of a United Nations-brokered peace plan to stem the violence.

Meanwhile, fierce  weekend clashes were  reported in Damascus, the capital, and opposition activists have cited  an upsurge in government shelling of insurgent strongholds, including parts of the central city of Homs and the  southern city of Daraa. An opposition monitoring group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 83 people were killed Saturday across Syria, more than half of them in military bombardments. The opposition reported renewed shelling of Homs on Sunday. The government has denied shelling civilians.

As a Kurd, Sieda is a member of a major Syrian minority group, but one that remains politically divided and has largely remained on the sidelines of the raging  insurrection that arose from Syria’s Arab Sunni Muslim majority. Kurds, concentrated in the remote northeast bordering Turkey and Iraq,  represent perhaps 10% of Syria’s religiously and ethnically diverse population.

Some Kurdish factions remain loyal to Assad; others fear an Arab Islamist takeover could weaken the Kurdish fight for greater rights and autonomy.

Sieda replaces Burhan Ghalioun, another exiled academic, based in Paris, who announced his resignation last month. Some had criticized Ghalioun's tenure as autocratic.

The Syria National Council was formed in Istanbul last year with grand ambitions of being the kind of broad-based front that helped Libyan rebels garner foreign support in their ultimately successful war last year to oust Moammar Kadafi.

But the Syrian council has been beset by divisions, internal rivalries, accusations of Islamist domination and complaints from fighters inside Syria that it was too detached from the battle. Scores of largely autonomous militias inside Syria are spearheading the struggle to oust Assad.

“We want to strengthen our links with activists on the ground,” Sieda told AFP.

Foreign diplomats seeking to aid anti-Assad Syrians have complained that the opposition lacks unity, making it hard for sympathetic governments to funnel funds and aid to the cause.

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— Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Abdulbasset Sieda speaks during a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: EPA.

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