By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — The best-known Syrian exile opposition group, the Syrian National Council, named a Kurdish exile as its new chiefSunday in another attempt to unify the fractious opposition fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
The new leader, Abdulbaset Sieda, a Sweden-based academic, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse that escalating government attacks and alleged atrocities demonstrated that Assad’s once-formidable control of Syria was teetering after almost 15 months of rebellion.
“The regime is on its last legs,” AFP quoted Sieda as saying. “The multiplying massacres and shelling show that it is struggling.”
On Sunday, opposition activists reported new government bombardment of the city of Homs and rebel strongholds in the provinces of Idlib, Dara and Latakia. The government has denied shelling civilians.
At least three major massacres have been reported in recent weeks, the most notorious being the killings last month of more than 100 civilians in the central town of Houla. Each side has blamed the other for the massacres, which have drawn international condemnation and underscored the failure of a United Nations-brokered peace plan.
Meanwhile, fierce weekend clashes were reported in Damascus, the capital. An opposition monitoring group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 83 people were killed Saturday across Syria, more than half of them in military bombardments. The group reported at least 17 more deaths on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, an opposition activist told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, that members of an entire Syrian air defense base, including 10 officers, had defected to the rebel Free Syrian Army in the embattled city of Rastan, bringing their weapons with them. There was no word from the government on the reported mass defection.
Sieda, the new leader of the Syrian National Council, is a member of a leading Syrian minority group, but one that remains politically divided and has largely remained on the sidelines of the raging insurrection led largely by Syria’s Arab Sunni Muslim majority. Kurds, concentrated in the remote northeast bordering Turkey and Iraq, account for perhaps 10 percent religiously and ethnically diverse population.
Some Kurdish factions remain loyal to Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Others fear that an Arab Islamist takeover could weaken the Kurdish fight for more rights and autonomy.
Sieda replaces Burhan Ghalioun, another exiled academic, based in Paris, who announced his resignation last month. Some had criticized Ghalioun’s tenure as autocratic.