Syrian opposition to ‘politically lead’ Free Syrian Army under new agreement

Abdel Basset Sayda, who has lived in exile in Sweden for two decades, 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. (Al Arabiya)

The newly-appointed leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Abdel Basset Sayda, said on Sunday that his group will become the political leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the country’s main armed resistance force.

The opposition bloc’s support of the FSA could allow the armed force to gain further ground.

The opposition army consists mainly of former Syrian troops who have deserted the army in protest against the government’s bloody crackdown, which has left more than 13,500 people dead since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In a press conference on Sunday, Sayda referred to Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter which allows for sanctions ranging from economic measures to an arms embargo, and if necessary, the use of military force in Syria. Chapter 7 was last used against Libya during the uprising last year.

“We urge the United Nations (under Chapter 7) to authorize the use of force” to protect civilians from ongoing violence in Syria, Sayda said.

The SNC had announced late Saturday that it elected Sayda, a Kurdish activist, as its new leader at a meeting in Istanbul.

Earlier, Sayda told AFP news agency that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is on its “last legs” and has lost control of several cities.

“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” Sayda said a few hours after he was named as the new SNC president.

“The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling,” he added in allusion to a spate of mass killings of civilians, the most recent of which saw 20 people, most of them women and children, killed in the bombardment of a residential area of the southern city of Daraa on Saturday.

During the press conference, Sayda largely focused on the possibility of foreign intervention in the crisis-torn country.

“The issue of foreign intervention in Syria is dependent on events on the ground,” Sayda said, adding that the situation in Syria threatens peace and security on both a regional and international level.

Meanwhile, in response to reports on Iranian intervention in Syria to strengthen regime forces, Sayda said: “We call on officials in Iran to respect the will of the Syrians and to prepare for a new phase.”

When asked about Lebanese civilians who have recently been kidnapped on the Syrian border, Sayda said: “The Lebanese government has not asked us to intervene in the kidnapping cases.”

Gunmen abducted on Sunday four Syrian Alawites and a Shiite man along the border with Syria after a Sunni Lebanese was kidnapped in the same region, a security official and witnesses told AFP news agency.

The tit-for-tat abductions occurred in the Wadi Khaled border region between the two countries, where tensions have run high between supporters and opponents of the regime in Syria, the sources said.

Several kidnappings of Lebanese and Syrians have recently occurred in Wadi Khaled, which hosts thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled repression in their country.

The SNC has repeatedly accused the Damascus regime of breaching the border with Lebanon and of launching attacks against Lebanese citizens and Syria refugees alike.

The new face of the SNC

Sayda takes over from Paris-based academic Ghalioun, the exiled bloc’s first leader 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 in Syria, and of giving the Muslim Brotherhood too big a role.

Sayda, who has lived in exile in Sweden for two decades, 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 civilizations 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 criticized 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.

Shelling of Homs

Meanwhile 35 people were killed in army bombardment over the last 24 hours in a renewed assault to regain control of the rural province of Homs, the epicentre of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad Assad, opposition activists said.

The bombardment targeted opposition strongholds in the city of Homs and the nearby towns of Qusair, Talbiseh and Rastan, where Free Syrian Army rebels have been escalating attacks on army patrols, roadblocks and missile batteries, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and other opposition campaigners said.

Earlier bullets and shrapnel shells smashed into homes in the Syrian capital of Damascus as troops battled rebels in the streets, a show of boldness for rebels taking their fight against Assad to the center of his power.

For nearly 12 hours of fighting that lasted into the early hours Saturday, rebels armed mainly with assault rifles fought Syrian forces in the heaviest fighting in the Assad stronghold since the 15-month-old uprising began. U.N. observers said rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the local power plant, damaging parts of it and reducing six buses to charred shells, according to video the observers took of the scene.

Syrian forces showed the regime’s willingness to unleash such firepower in the capital: At least three tank shells slammed into residential areas in the central Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, an activist said. Intense exchanges of assault-rifle fire marked the clash, according to residents and amateur video posted online.

The Damascus violence was a dramatic shift; the capital has been relatively quiet compared with other Syrian cities throughout the uprising. Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, the country’s largest, are under the firm grip of security forces.

The rebels’ brazenness in the Damascus districts underscored deep-seated Sunni anger against the regime, with residents risking their safety - and potentially their lives - to shelter the fighters. Residents burned tires to block the advance of Syrian troops, sending plumes of smoke into the air, amateur video showed.

Urban Sunni Syrians had once mostly stayed at arms’ length from their mostly rural compatriots leading the uprising, fearing the instability that their leaderless, chaotic movement would bring.

But it appears a series of massacres of mainly Sunni peasants over the past few weeks have tipped some of their urban brethren in favor of the uprising. One rebel supporter in Qaboun said the recent mass killings made people see rebel fighters more as protectors against Assad’s forces.

“The regime has forced the rebels into the city. When they commit attacks, or massacres, or arrests, they come in to defend residents,” he said.

The most recent mass killing was on Wednesday in central Syria, where activists say up to 78 people were hacked, burned and stabbed in the farming village of Mazraat al-Qubair. The opposition and regime have traded blame over the slayings.

“The heart of this revolt is the poor, jobless youth in the countryside. But that is gathering strength in other places, in Aleppo, in Damascus and even the Kurdish regions,” said Syria expert Joshua Landis.

“The psychological state of the people, after watching these massacres, is so far advanced. People are ready to do whatever it takes. They are frightened; it could come next to them.”

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