ISTANBUL // A post-Assad Syria will be a democratic state with minority rights protected, the new opposition leader pledged yesterday.
But on his first day in office Abdel Basset Sayda already faced a deadline of a month to come up with a plan for comprehensive structural reform of the strife-torn Syrian National Council, and doubts in the organisation about his ability to make it a more efficient spearhead for the uprising.
Mr Sayda, 55, an independent Kurdish activist who lives in exile in Sweden, was chosen to lead the SNC during a meeting in Istanbul late on Saturday. He replaces Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based intellectual, who resigned last month.
Mr Sayda said the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad was nearing its end. "We call upon all officials in the regime and in the institutions to defect," he said.
Minorities such as Alawites and Christians could be confident that their rights would be guaranteed in a post-Assad Syria, Mr Sayda said. "There will be no discrimination based on gender or sects. The new Syria will be a democratic state."
Born in the mostly Kurdish north-eastern city of Amuda, Mr Sayda, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, teaches philosophy and Arabic in the Swedish city of Uppsala. He joined the SNC when the umbrella group was formed last year in response to the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's violent repression of the protest movement, and has led its human-rights department.
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. Some prominent dissidents, among them Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge, have quit in protest.
Mr Ghalioun, the SNC's first leader, stepped down after accusations within the organisation that he monopolised power and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to wield too much influence. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists in Syria, had threatened to pull out of the SNC altogether.
Few activists or political analysts, let alone ordinary Syrians, had heard of Mr Sayda before his selection to head the organisation.
"He's not someone we're familiar with. He's a Kurdish copy of Burhan Ghalioun - an academic, an exile, a political independent with unknown and probably limited influence over the opposition on the ground inside Syria," a political analyst in Damascus said.
"But it is certainly of symbolic importance to have a Kurd as the SNC's leader and it will answer some of the criticism from the regime that the opposition was not democratic because Ghalioun was becoming a permanent president."
Abu Walid, 50, a politically active Kurdish labourer in Damascus, was encouraged to see a Kurd in charge - even someone he had not heard of - and hoped it would more fully engage the Kurdish community in the revolt.
"It is too early to judge the effect it will have but I hope he will be able to bring the Kurdish bloc fully together with the SNC in a united front which will put much more pressure on the regime," he said.
That Mr Sayda is not affiliated with any single SNC faction could be both a strength and a weakness, said Molham Aldrobi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful single group in the SNC.
"The pro would be that he has equal distance to everyone," Mr Aldrobi said. "The con is that he may not be strong enough."
Mr Aldrobi said one of Mr Sayda's challenges was to make the SNC more transparent, since most decisions had been taken by a 13-member executive, ignoring more than 300 members of the SNC's General Assembly. Mr Sayda would succeed as SNC leader only "if he learns the lessons [of Mr Ghalioun's failure] and if others become more cooperative. But if the same mentality remains in the executive, then there will be challenges."
At the Istanbul meeting, the Muslim Brotherhood suggested a road map to restructure the SNC, and the meeting gave Mr Sayda a month to convene the SNC General Assembly and present a plan for changes in the organisation. Mr Aldrobi said the Muslim Brotherhood supported Mr Sayda, but: "There is no single person who can move the SNC forward."
Kamal Al Labwani, a veteran political activist, said Mr Sayda's appointment did not go nearly far enough towards the reforms of the council he and others have been calling for. "They changed just the president, nothing else," he said.
Mr Al Labwani has been a strong critic of the SNC, which he believes has concentrated power among a core group and has failed to provide leadership for the uprising.
"Abdel Basset is not a bad man, but he does not have enough power," he said. "The situation in the council is still far from what we need and what is useful. People inside Syria are disappointed with what is happening outside."
However, Wael Merza, a former SNC secretary general, described the selection of Mr Sayda as a "step forward" for the council. Mr Sayda was "moderate in his opinions and can bring people together".
Differences within the SNC were underlined yesterday by conflicting reports about the way Mr Sayda was chosen. Mr Aldrobi said Mr Sayda, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, won a vote against George Sabra, a left-wing intellectual. But Mahmut Osman, an SNC member in Istanbul, said there was no other candidate for the top post. Mr Sayda could not be reached for a comment last night.
In a bid to boost unity, Turkey's government is hosting a meeting of the opposition, including Mr Sayda, and a representative of 17 western and Arab nations opposed to Mr Assad in Istanbul on June 15. "It aims to fix the different views among themselves," a western official with knowledge of the preparations for the meeting said, adding the meeting in Istanbul may be followed by a broader conference involving the Arab League.
Some western officials have voiced frustration with the perceived inability of the opposition to come up with a credible plan for a democratic post-Assad Syria.
In the run-up to the meeting in Istanbul that chose Mr Sayda, one senior western official said the Syrian opposition still had to prove it was sincere about its commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights and recognition of minorities.
"We must not just look at the nice faces" among opposition representatives, the official said. "There are some truly terrible people in the background."
The opposition had to unite on democratic and human-rights standards. "It has to be more than just 'Assad must go'," he said.
* With additional reporting by Phil Sands in Damascus