By Rania El Gamal
DOHA Nov 9 The Syrian National Council, the
main opposition body outside the country in the uprising against
President Bashar al-Assad, elected veteran activist George Sabra
as its head on Friday.
Sabra, a Christian, takes over a body that has come under
heavy criticism from international allies for being ineffective
in the fight against the Syrian government and for being riven
by personal disputes.
Sabra immediately appealed for arms to fight Assad's forces.
"We need only one thing to support our right to survive and to
protect ourselves: we need weapons, we need weapons," he told
reporters after his election by the SNC's executive council
which has met this week in Qatar.
The SNC will start talks on Saturday with other Syrian
factions including representatives of rebel groups inside Syria
on forming a new, wider body that hopes to gain international
recognition as a government-in-waiting.
Qatar, the United States and other powers are pressing the
Syrian opposition groups to come together. Western countries and
Syria's neighbours fear that hardline Islamist groups close to
al Qaeda are growing in influence among rebels on the ground in
Qatar has hosted hundreds of figures from the SNC and other
groups over the past week in five-star hotels, while U.S.
diplomats have hovered on the sidelines to prod them towards an
agreement. However, the SNC is worried that its influence will
be diluted in any new body.
Sabra beat one other candidate to succeed Abdulbaset Sieda,
a Kurd resident in Sweden, who took over from the SNC's first
leader Burhan Ghalioun.
Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Farooq Taifoor was
elected as Sabra's deputy. The Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist
group with affiliates around the Arab world, is seen as the
dominant force within the SNC.
Sabra said his election showed that there was no
sectarianism in the SNC. "The people here are Muslims and they
elected a Christian," he said.
Sabra comes from the mixed Damascus suburb of Qatana and
marched in early street demonstrations demanding Assad's removal
last year before fleeing the country when secret police began
targetting prominent pro-democracy campaigners.
A 65-year-old geography teacher, Sabra was known as a fierce
critic of Assad before the uprising began. He is close to Riad
al-Turk, a famed opposition figure who still operates
underground in Syria.
Sabra is one of the writers of the Arabic version of the
popular children's TV show Sesame Street.