Facing dissent, Syrian exile leader changes tack

ROME Tue May 15, 2012 1:25pm EDT

ROME (Reuters) - Re-elected, somewhat grudgingly, as leader of Syria's opposition coalition, Burhan Ghalioun says he is determined to break with a year of failure and to rally fellow exiles and their allies behind a new strategy of arming the rebels inside the country.

The 67-year-old sociology professor from Paris's Sorbonne cut a sometimes lonely figure during an animated gathering of the Syrian National Council in Rome, but he won a three-month extension to his mandate on Tuesday, as a president who can satisfy both powerful Islamists and the SNC's Western backers.

"It is true that we had a weak performance and we admit that, and that is why we are restructuring now and we hope by this we will have a better performance," Ghalioun told Reuters shortly before delegates re-elected him.

"We are trying more and more to take political control or supervision of the rebels and reorganize them so we can create a new political strategy," he added, saying more groups within Syria which share the goal of ousting President Bashar al-Assad would be brought under the SNC umbrella this week.

Dropping his past reluctance to support the militarization of the movement to end four decades of Assad family rule - and breaking with the caution favored by Western powers - Ghalioun said he now supported arming the rebel Free Syrian Army and voiced impatience with some of the Council's foreign backers.

"We do not deal weapons but we will make some agreements and some countries promised us that they would provide the Free Syrian Army with weapons," he said.

A senior SNC member told Reuters on condition of anonymity that in the coming days the SNC would send a shipment of weapons into Syria via Turkey. While Western governments are wary of military involvement, Arab powers Qatar and Saudi Arabia favor arming the rebels - though few weapons appear to have arrived.

While refocusing the SNC may please revolutionary groups within Syria, many of them army deserters, the council and its leader Ghalioun have much to do to win respect from those facing arrest, torture and death inside the country.

"Ghalioun and his SNC followers fly in jets and worry about which hotel they want to meet at," said an activist from Idlib province who gave his name only as Ammar for fear of reprisals.

"We have to worry about where we won't get shot at, where we can find food. The SNC and people like him have nothing to do with our revolution."

SUPPORT BASE

Born in Homs, Syria's third biggest city and the epicenter of an army offensive against the 14-month-old uprising, Ghalioun has been advocating democracy since the 1970s, when Assad's late father was in power. Active in the brief Damascus Spring reform movement that greeted the younger Assad's succession in 2000, Ghalioun did not stay in Syria but kept up his work as a writer and rights activist in France while Assad stamped out dissent.

Even within the SNC, Ghalioun appears to struggle to impose himself as a leader. Inexpressive and somber in contrast to his more gregarious colleagues, he tended to potter about alone, lost in thought, during coffee breaks in Rome while clusters of fellow SNC members chatted animatedly among themselves.

Interviewed in his hotel suite before the presidency vote, he appeared stiff and ill at ease with a television camera. He winced when asked about complaints that the SNC was opaque over where it raised funds and how it spent them: "The accounts are there and available for all the members of the SNC," he said.

"But not for the media."

Since emerging at the head of the SNC at its formation last August under the sponsorship of Assad's Western, Arab and Turkish adversaries, Ghalioun's image as a secular, liberal leader who could rally support in Western capitals has been dented by accusations from liberal rivals within the opposition who say he is too close to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Critics spoke of heated debates in Rome over the presidency before Ghalioun was re-elected with two thirds of the vote.

He indicated an impatience with the council's international sponsors, whose passivity he said had encouraged Assad to defy a U.N.-brokered truce and crack down on the rebels:

"It is clear that with the military and security clamp down by the regime is caused by the inaction of international community to make strong initiatives," he said. "The regime feels that it can win the battle and continue the killing.

"If the approach of the international community against the violence remains weak, there is a real risk that it will reach an impasse," he added.

In particular, those close to Ghalioun feel that the United States and Western powers are less valuable allies than Arab states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These would welcome a victory for Syria's Sunni Muslim majority over Assad's dominant Alawite minority, which has long been supported by Shi'ite Iran.

"It's not about the U.S. anymore," an SNC member close to Ghalioun said in Rome, arguing that President Barack Obama's campaign for re-election was distracting Washington's attention. "They are more concerned with elections and can't help.

"It's all Saudi and Qatar now."

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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