We will defeat Assad, says new opposition chief
ISTANBUL // He has not lived in Syria for 18 years, he is an academic by training and he has been thrust into the leadership of a political organisation whose latest meeting was punctuated by a punch-throwing brawl.
But Abdulbaset Saida, newly elected head of the Syrian National Council, is confident he can galvanise the opponents of Bashar Al Assad into a unified force that can not only overthrow the government in Damascus but replace it.
"We don't have a tradition of political discourse after decades of dictatorship," Mr Saida told The National on the eve of talks in Moscow with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. "But it will be better from now on."
Mr Saida was reminded again yesterday of the political and diplomatic challenges that lie ahead. At their meeting, he failed to persuade Mr Lavrov to accept the opposition's insistence that Mr Al Assad step down and a new political system be introduced.
"We have not seen a development in the Russian position. I was here one year ago and the position has not changed," he said after the talks.
Mr Saida's problems on the diplomatic front may be surpassed only by his difficulties in forging some sense of cohesion among the disparate political, religious and ethnic factions that make up the SNC - or, as he puts it, creating a "national project for all groups".
Some opposition officials and outside observers wonder whether Mr Saida, a member of the Syria's Kurdish minority group and an expert in ancient Assyrian culture, can end internal divisions and formulate a road map for a post-Assad Syria that would be embraced by all who oppose the Syrian president.
One SNC activist said Mr Saida's position would become far more tenuous if he failed to present such a plan within the next two months.
Whether he succeeds or not, he has had a meteoric rise from obscurity.
Before he was elected on June 9 to replace Burhan Ghalioun, Mr Saida, 56, who speaks Kurdish, Arabic and English, was unknown except to a small circle of Syrian activists.
Now, as he shuttles from capital to capital meeting with presidents, premiers and foreign ministers, he is bemused at the number of ways his last name is rendered - most often, and incorrectly, as "Sieda".
He says it means "teacher" and comes from his grandfather, who taught at a religious school in northern Syria. "There were a couple of versions," he says with a chuckle.
Mr Saida was born in the town of Amuda, in Hasaka province near the border with Turkey, and became involved in Kurdish political groups as a teenager. He was awarded a doctorate in philosophy by the University of Damascus in 1991 and served as chairman of a Kurdish party in Syria before his political activities drew the attention of authorities and he was forced to leave the country.
"I went to Libya for three years and returned to Syria in 1994, but left again for Sweden after a few weeks," he said. Until he took up full-time residence in Istanbul last month, he lived in the Swedish city of Uppsala, working as a philosophy teacher and Arabic instructor. He and his wife, also a philosopher whom he met at university in Damascus, have four daughters and a son.
Last year, he helped to found the SNC and headed the group's human rights department until he was voted its chairman last month.
Much of Mr Saida's first month in office has been devoted to overcoming the rifts left by Mr Ghalioun, who resigned after being accused of monopolising decision-making and allowing Islamists to gain excessive power in the coalition.
Sixteen months into the uprising against Mr Al Assad, fundamental disagreements persist over the role of the armed opposition, and whether to endorse the armed overthrow of the Assad government and foreclose any negotiations with the government. So deep are the differences that one participant in the Cairo meeting, Fawaz Tello, reportedly declared: "We should not try to be in the same place — we have different demands."
Equally problematic is the apparent inability of the SNC to project a common vision of a post-Assad Syria, one that would persuade governments of the region and elsewhere that it represents a government in waiting.
Upon his election last month, Mr Saida, whom SNC officials describe as "moderate", made plain his own hopes.
"We would like to reassure all sects and groups, especially Alawites and Christians, that the future of Syria will be for all of us," he declared. "There will be no discrimination based on gender or sects. The new Syria will be a democratic state."
But since then, rhetoric has clashed with reality. The scuffles and fistfights at the Cairo meeting broke out when some delegates voiced objections to treating Kurds and other minorities in a post-Assad Syria as a separate category, rather than Syrian citizens first and minorities second.
"It's normal," said Mr Saida of the pent-up frustrations and political atrophy afflicting people living under dictatorship and struggling to emerge from it.
Asked about Kurdish demands for greater autonomy, Mr Saida said the new constitution would end discrimination against minorities and would recognise the Kurds' identity as a group. "Some people want more, but we can have dialogue."
Mr Saida denied there was a growing chasm between the exile-dominated SNC and opposition groups inside Syria itself. He also insisted that he has been working to bring other opposition groups into the SNC and to launch organisational reforms to make the coalition more efficient and transparent.
"We need dialogue, we need dialogue all the time," he said. There was progress in designing "mechanisms to solve all the problems" within the SNC.
But some question whether the new SNC chief can reform the organisation.
"His challenges are huge," said Molham Aldrobi, an SNC member who represents Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. "So far, it's a mixed picture.
"Within the next two months, he should call a meeting of the general assembly and present an integrated plan that has everybody contributing."
Some observers believe Mr Saida will enjoy only a brief tenure as head of the SNC, especially if he does not succeed in getting Syria's minority Kurds to take a more active role in the uprising. So far, they have stayed mostly on the sidelines.
He is a "transitional figure" who won election last month as a neutral consensus figure because he lacked a power base of his own within the organisation, said Oytun Orhan from the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, a think tank in Ankara.
"I think he needs to make his name, but I don't think he has the ability," said Kamal Al Labwani, an opposition figure who has been critical of the SNC.
"People are dying inside Syria and we need good drivers, good leaders."
* Additional reporting by Zoi Constantine in Beirut and Agence France-Presse
Updated: July 12, 2012 04:00 AM