Kurd moderate takes over Syria opposition

AFP , Sunday 10 Jun 2012

The opposition Syrian National Council says it has elected Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda as its new leader at a meeting in Istanbul

Abdel Basset Sayda
Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda (Photo: Internet )

Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda, who was named on Sunday to lead the opposition Syrian National Council, is known for his integrity but insiders say he has little political experience.

He takes over the exiled dissident coalition at a time of mounting tensions between activists and rebel fighters on the ground inside Syria and the emigres who have been the main contact with the outside world.

Sayda replaces the SNC'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.

Activists accused Ghalioun of ignoring the Local Coordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground, and of giving the Muslim Brotherhood too big a role.

Sayda had been expected to be chosen by acclamation but a brief statement put out by the SNC before dawn on Sunday said he had been elected at a meeting of the group's leaders in Istanbul the previous day.

He is seen as a consensus candidate capable of reconciling the rival factions within the SNC and of broadening its appeal among Syria's myriad of ethnic and confessional groups.

Born in 1956 in Amuda, a mostly Kurdish city in northeastern Syria, Sayda is an expert in ancient civilisations and author of a number of books on Syria's Kurdish minority but is Arabic educated.

He does not belong to any political party and his name is not familiar to many Syrians but SNC officials say he is a "conciliatory" figure, "honest" and "independent".

The SNC has been criticised for not representing the full diversity of Arabs, Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Druze and other ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

Syria's Kurds represent around nine percent of Syria's 23 million population. Most of them live in the north of the country and in Damascus.

They complain of persistent discrimination, and demand recognition for their Kurdish culture and language, and that they be treated as full-fledged citizens.

A dozen Kurdish political groups are banned by Syrian authorities.

"Sayda does not have a lot of political experience, he doesn't have a long history in the opposition," said Monzer Makhous, coordinator for the SNC's external relations in Europe.

But "he has good relations with everyone," added George Sabra, a veteran activist based in Paris, who is member of the coalition's executive board.

Sayda is also on the board and heads the bloc's human rights department. His key challenge will be to turn the SNC into a credible interlocutor for the international community.

His friend and fellow Kurdish militant Massu Akko describes Sayda as "honest, level-headed and cultured."

"He is very loyal to Syria and to the Kurdish question, but he is a moderate. It is therefore a message sent to the Kurds and all the minorities," said the SNC's external relations chief, Basma Kodmani.

Sayda, 55, is married and has four daughters and a son.

He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Damascus University and was a university professor in Libya for three years until he left for exile in Sweden in 1994, where he switched his interest to ancient civilisations.

Sayda once told AFP that he "worked secretly in politics" for a long time against Assad's regime.

Sources close to him say he was active within Syria's Kurdish movement which staged several uprisings against the regime in past decades.

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