DOHA: The Syrian National Council elected veteran dissident George Sabra Friday as its new president but delayed a key decision on uniting the broader opposition, while a main civilian activist grouping quit the group’s ranks.
The move came amid rising concerns about Syria’s refugee situation and tension on Syria’s borders with both Turkey and Israel.
Sabra, a Christian leftist and former political prisoner, lost a bid to join the SNC’s leadership body earlier this week but was named when an elected figure pulled out.
His first comments after being named to the SNC’s top post focused on international assistance.
“We need only one thing to support our right to survive and to protect ourselves: we need weapons, we need weapons,” he told reporters in the Qatari capital.
The SNC is now scheduled to vote Saturday on an American-backed initiative aimed at restructuring the Syrian opposition.
“We requested a postponement of 24 hours – we are in the electoral process,” Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the new team, told AFP.
But the Local Coordination Committees, a major network of on-the-ground activists, said it had withdrawn from the SNC over its failure to adopt “serious and effective” reforms to make it more representative.
“It is clear to us now that the Syrian National Council is not fit to assume such a role, especially after the disappointing results of its restructuring attempts,” said the LCC.
LCC spokeswoman Rima Fleihan told AFP that “nothing has changed in how the Council works, despite a reform project, because the new structure is under the near-total control of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Sabra succeeds Abdel-Basset Sayda, a Kurd, as SNC president.
Representatives of various opposition groups were said to be close to reaching an agreement over a united structure when they gathered in Doha Thursday. But representatives of the SNC, which is vying to keep its leading role and is under U.S. pressure to unite, voiced reservations about the initiative, based on a proposal tabled by Seif.
Under the plan, the new opposition body would name a transitional government of some 10 members, and a military council.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week called the SNC unrepresentative of opposition forces on the ground and said it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”The SNC, which fears marginalization in a new structure, in return accused Washington of undermining the revolt and “sowing the seeds of division.”
Ahmad Ben Helli, deputy head of the Arab League, said delegates had been urged to overcome the divisions that have dogged their efforts to unseat Assad.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, on opening the meetings, urged them to “unify their ranks and positions and to prioritize the interests of their nation and people over their own personal interests.”
Sources said Sheikh Hamad told delegates Thursday to “get a move on” in a closed meeting.
“The Qataris are not to going to let them leave here in failure after all this investment,” said a diplomatic source on the sidelines of the Doha meetings.
The SNC came under fire this week when elections meant to expand its leadership saw it choose a 40-member general secretariat that included many Islamists but no women and few members of Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities.
The moves in Doha came as at least 11,000 Syrians poured into neighboring countries in a single day, according to U.N. officials, who warned about an expected sharp increase in refugee numbers.
Turkey said Friday that 8,000 more refugees had fled across the frontier in the last 24 hours, while Syrian rebels secured the latest border crossing with their northern neighbor in the town of Ras al-Ain.
The fierce clashes there killed at least 16 Syrian soldiers and 10 rebels Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon warned Damascus it would act to defend its sovereignty if the fighting in Syria continued to spill over into the occupied Golan Heights.
His remarks, published on his official Twitter account, were made a day after three stray mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the Golan.
“We see the Syrian regime as responsible for what is happening along the border,” said Yaalon, a senior Cabinet minister and former armed forces chief of staff.
“The current situation in Syria could carry on for an extended and bloody period. If we see that it spills over in our direction, we know how to defend the citizens and the sovereignty of the State of Israel,” said the minister, who holds the strategic affairs portfolio.
In an interview broadcast Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his country was “not in a state of civil war,” and added that he had no regrets about any decisions he had made since the uprising against him began nearly 20 months ago.
He also vowed to stay on as president until at least 2014 when presidential elections were scheduled to take place, while accusing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of behaving like an Ottoman sultan and thinking he was a “caliph.”
Erdogan, one of the backers of the rebel Free Syrian Army, has shifted his policy on Syria from “zero problems to zero friends,” said Assad, who said he last spoke with Erdogan in May 2011.
In Syria, fighting and violence claimed an estimated 120 lives amid a wave of street protests held under the slogan “time to march on Damascus,” a reference to the recent surge of fighting in the capital between government forces and rebels.