Last updated: 4 November, 2012

Syrian opposition in makeover meeting

Leading Syrian dissident Riad Seif denied Sunday he planned to head a government in exile as the main opposition group began a meeting aimed at broadening its membership which has been criticised by the US.

Details have emerged of plans to reshape the Syrian National Council into a representative government-in-exile, after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged that the SNC was not representative.

Washington is pressing for an opposition makeover during the four-day Doha meeting, with long-time dissident Seif reportedly touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

But the prominent opponent to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was adamant that he does not want to lead such a government.

“I shall not be a candidate to lead a government in exile… I am 66 and have health problems,” he told reporters ahead of the Doha gathering.

Some 286 members of the SNC are taking part in the meeting that was scheduled some time ago.

But both host Qatar and the Arab League have extended invitations for another “consultative” meeting on Thursday, believed to be aimed at promoting a body with a broader opposition representation than the SNC.

“This new initiative seems to be promoted by international parties, mainly the United States,” said former SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun.

A Western diplomat said the initiative is “supported by the United States, Britain, France, and possibly by some Arab countries, Qatar and Turkey.”

“It is a balanced plan, which will bring together the components of the Syrian community: the Alawites, Christians and Syrians inside and outside the country,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Seif and some two dozen Syrian opposition figures gathered in Amman on Thursday came up with proposals for a new body to represent the disparate groups opposing Assad.

Among those in attendance were some SNC members, former premier Riad Hijab who defected in August, Ali Sadreddin Bayanuni of the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish and tribal representatives, participants said.

The Amman meeting supported “efforts underway to put in place a unified political body for the whole of the opposition,” a post-meeting statement said.

Hijab’s spokesman, Mohammed al-Otri, said the group was proposing “the creation of a new political organ of the opposition, representing all of its components.”

He said the new body would include the 14 members of the SNC executive, three members of the Kurdish National Council, representatives of on-the-ground activists and fighters, long-standing dissidents and religious leaders.

“It remains to be decided whether this body will replace the SNC or will constitute a new coalition,” Otri said, adding that the creation of the group “will certainly lead to the formation of a government” in exile.

In a separate statement, Bayanuni underlined the Brotherhood’s support for “the idea of a political leadership to bring together the opposition” including the SNC.

But he said the Brotherhood supported maintaining the SNC, on which it holds significant influence, and “not replacing it with a new body.”

Ghalioun said the SNC has demanded to represent “40 percent of the participants in the meeting on Thursday, which will include other opposition groups,” including representatives of the Local Coordination Committees of the Syrian resistance and rebel groups.

The SNC lashed out on Friday at alleged US interference in the opposition, accusing Washington of undermining the revolt and “sowing the seeds of division” by seeking its overhaul.

Clinton has voiced frustration with the SNC, calling it unrepresentative of on-the-ground opposition forces and saying it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”

Washington later denied trying to dictate to the opposition, insisting that it simply sought to ensure that more voices were heard.

The meeting in Qatar, a key backer of the revolt in Syria, was originally scheduled for October 17 but was postponed because of what an SNC official said was a flood of requests to join the group.

However, other SNC sources said the delay reflected deep internal tensions.

The SNC has emerged as Syria’s interlocutor with the international community since its creation around six months after the March 2011 start of the uprising which monitors say has cost more than 36,000 lives.

But divisions have dogged opposition ranks. Some groups — unlike the SNC — staunchly oppose foreign intervention and violent regime change.