Liberals challenge Islamist grip on Syrian National Council

ISTANBUL Wed Mar 28, 2012 2:18pm EDT

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leaders agreed on Wednesday to expand and reorganize the main dissident group receiving international backing in the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, in a move that could lessen Islamist influence on the organization.

Invited by Turkey and Arab League chair Qatar to form a common front in their year-old uprising against Assad, the opposition met in Istanbul on Tuesday riven by disputes.

Under pressure from Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood agreed to form a committee of ten to restructure the 350-member Syrian National Council, around 270 of whose members are Islamists, opposition sources said.

On Wednesday they issued a declaration in which they promised to build a democratic state and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed.

"We are going to hold the first meeting tonight. We are just a preliminary committee and the goal is to reach a larger organization, such as a National Conference, in three weeks that may supersede the SNC completely," said committee member Najati Tayyara, one of the most respected members of the opposition.

The declaration was meant to show the world that Assad's opponents can form a real alternative to the present government ahead of a 'Friends of Syria' foreign ministers' meeting in Istanbul on April 1.

The United Nations says government forces have killed more than 9,000 civilians in Syria, and fear that the country could slide into a new phase of sectarian and ethnic conflict if Assad goes, has led some foreign powers to hesitate in their drive to put pressure on the Syrian president.

LIBERALS SCEPTICAL

Divisions within the opposition have also undermined the revolt. Despite the formation of the committee to restructure the SNC, liberals were skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's willingness to loosen its grip.

"Once the SNC is left on its own again it will disunite. The deal was reached to give a basis for the 'Friends of Syria' to help the revolt," said opposition leader Kamal Labwani, who has spent ten years as a political prisoner in Syria.

Labwani, a physician, resigned from the SNC earlier this month complaining that it was a facade for the Muslim Brotherhood, and is the main force behind the proposed reforms.

The committee includes four SNC members, notably its head Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic who has been accused of being a figurehead while the Muslim Brotherhood wields the real power.

Both veteran opposition leaders and a new generation of young activists have also criticized the SNC, saying it has too few representatives of 'the Arab street' and the popular protest movement.

Tayyara, who left Syria after spending nine months in jail during the uprising, has refused to join the SNC unless it is restructured.

Another senior activist said: "If the committee is allowed to do its work, the Brotherhood will lose its influence over the centre of decision-making within the SNC, and exiles who also have little connection with Syria will be booted out."

But a Brotherhood member said the committee needed to be expanded, adding that the Brotherhood opponents "are mistaken if they think that a few individuals with little political weight can subvert the will of the majority."

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