DOHA (Reuters) - The head of Syria’s main opposition group abroad said on Tuesday it should retain a “central role” in any unified front against President Bashar al-Assad, possibly complicating unity efforts among the Syrian leader’s opponents.
Factions in the Syrian National Council (SNC) are jostling for influence before talks in Qatar on Thursday on uniting exile opposition groups with rebels fighting in Syria, in a drive to gain international support and arms to pursue the struggle.
But early signs of internal rifts at the Qatar talks cast doubt on the latest quest for opposition unity.
“We will go to this meeting (on Thursday) with an open heart and mind but we affirm the need to maintain the central role of the SNC in the opposition,” SNC leader Abdulbaset Sieda told an SNC conference in the Qatari capital Doha.
“We see that any action that targets the SNC, with or without realizing it, will extend the life of the regime.”
Thursday’s meeting will discuss a proposal by influential dissident Riad Seif, who is an SNC member, to form a new 50-member civilian group that will later choose a temporary government and coordinate with the military wing of the revolt.
A Doha-based diplomat said SNC members feared their group risked losing influence inside the new body.
At a four-day meeting in Qatar before Thursday’s talks, the SNC has sought to revamp itself by expanding its membership to 420 from about 300 to include more political and revolutionary groups. But critics said the changes were cosmetic.
“Overhauling the council was not done properly. They just removed some names to settle old scores and brought in others who are their supporters. Many factions were not included,” said a Syrian opposition source who asked not to be named.
The SNC, which wants 22 of the 50 seats in Seif’s proposed assembly, plans to elect a new executive committee and leader on Wednesday.
The SNC’s Syrian and foreign critics say it is too much under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood, and does not properly represent rebels and opposition activists within Syria.
Sieda acknowledged some shortcomings but said the SNC had achieved much despite “the limited capabilities we received from our (Arab) brothers” and was keen to improve its performance.
He also criticized the “Friends of Syria”, a gathering of Western and regional powers that favor Assad’s overthrow, saying: “This group has promised us a lot and did only little compared to the size of the crisis and the suffering.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week it was time to move beyond the SNC and bring in those “in the front lines fighting and dying” - a sign of U.S. impatience with a group that has long urged international intervention in Syria.
Divisions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside and outside Syria have thwarted previous opposition unity efforts and have deterred Western powers from offering more than moral support in the anti-Assad struggle.
Big powers are also divided over Syria, with Russia and China blocking any action against Assad by the U.N. Security Council and criticizing outside support for rebels, which has come mostly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and Turkey, as well as the United States and France.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the Syrian opposition on Tuesday to enter talks with the authorities to end the crisis and abandon a precondition that Assad step down.
“The most important thing is stopping the violence immediately. If it is more important to the other side to change the Assad regime then they want to continue the bloodbath in Syria,” Lavrov said in Amman after meeting former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab who defected to Jordan in August.
Hijab said Assad’s removal was “the only way out” ahead of a negotiated settlement to the 19-month-old conflict.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alistair Lyon