The head of Syria’s main opposition bloc, Burhan Ghalioun, formally resigned from his post, a statement issued by the Syrian National Council said Thursday after a two-day meeting in Istanbul, setting the stage for a showdown between the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its political rivals over who will be the new leader.
The SNC “office decided to accept the resignation and to ask the council president to pursue his work until the election of a new president at a meeting on June 9-10,” it said, according to AFP.
Ghalioun, a secular sociologist backed by the Brotherhood, announced his resignation on May 17 to avert divisions within the opposition bloc, after activists on the ground accused him of monopolizing power.
The statement also said Syria’s unwillingness to stick to a peace deal brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the continuing shelling and killing in the country were “a deliberate attempt to scupper the plan.”
It called on “the international community to immediately act to adopt a new mechanism, through the (U.N.) Security Council, to force the Syrian regime to put an end to its crimes because as it is this regime only reacts to force.”
Squabbling in the council has undermined international support for the opposition, as a military crackdown against the 14-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, now coupled with an armed insurgency against his rule, shows no signs of relenting.
A new leader could be key to winning international recognition for the council and allaying Western concerns about the rise of Islamists as the main force in the 14-month popular uprising. The Islamists already dominate the council but are divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions.
The council’s executive bureau decided at a meeting in Istanbul to convene the 50-member general secretariat in the Turkish capital on June 11 and 12 to elect a replacement for Ghalioun, the statement added, according to Reuters.
The 12-member bureau, the top decision-making body of the council, rejected Ghalioun’s proposal that the whole council should meet to agree on an alternative, members of the council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Thursday.
“Ghalioun’s chances of remaining president after June 12 have now diminished. It would have been almost impossible to find a consensus candidate other than him if the whole council convened,” a Ghalioun supporter on the general secretariat said.
“The Brotherhood pushed so the whole council meets, but did not get its way,” another council source said.
The 67-year-old Ghalioun has been attracting growing criticism among opposition ranks inside Syria for continuously seeking to renew his three-month term and for his skepticism over armed resistance by majority Sunni Muslims to the rule of Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect
Ghalioun, who has been living in France for decades, has been head of the opposition since the council was formed in Istanbul in August as an umbrella organization to lead a democratic transition if Assad were toppled.
Paradoxically, his position became precarious when the general secretariat re-elected him for a third three-month term at a meeting in Rome on May 15, sparking discontent and a threat of resignation by Adib Shishakly, one of the council’s founders and the grandson of a former president of Syria.
The Local Coordination Committee, a grass-roots activists’ organization, also threatened to leave the council.
Two days later, Ghalioun offered to step down. The Muslim Brotherhood said he remained the only candidate who could attract broad support.
But George Sabra, a veteran liberal who came second in last week’s ballot with 33 percent of the votes compared with Ghalioun’s 66 percent, is seen as a strong candidate.
Sabra, a Christian who fled Syria last year after leading street protests in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, is an ally of Syria's top dissident, Riad al-Turk,
Turk, an 81-year-old former leftist who spent 25 years as a political prisoner, operates underground inside Syria. The opposition looks to him for moral guidance.
A Muslim Brotherhood official hinted that Sabra may be unacceptable to the group, whose support has been crucial for Ghalioun remaining president since August.
“We need a president who is acceptable to the West and someone like Sabra would fit the criteria,” the official said. “But we have to take into consideration the sentiment of the street. He is too far to the left.”
Hours earlier, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of activists on the ground, threatened to pull out of the SNC over its lack of collaboration with activists in Syria and “monopolization” of power, AFP reported.
The LCC also criticized the SNC over the strong influence that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood wields over the coalition.
More than 12,600 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the Syrian uprising began, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including nearly 1,500 since the putative U.N.-backed truce took effect April 12.