DOHA (Reuters) - Opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were struggling to form a new leadership in Qatar on Saturday despite objections from the Islamist-flavored Syrian National Council (SNC), which fears it will be sidelined.
The United States and Qatar have pressed the foreign-based SNC to join an assembly proposed by noted Syrian dissident Riad Seif that would include armed rebel groups fighting in Syria.
The SNC, criticized for being ineffective, disunited and out of touch with insurgents and activists inside Syria, says its outside backers should do more to arm the rebels and protect civilians, instead of focusing on its own shortcomings.
The council’s newly elected head, George Sabra, said Seif’s plan was “the vision of the international community” and criticized as shameful international inaction on Syria.
“The international community has not been able to provide enough weapons for Syrians to protect themselves, while the regime is free to kill all and has resources for weaponry,” the leftist Christian told reporters in Doha.
Anti-Assad protests erupted nearly 20 months ago, meeting a violent response which led to a conflict that has cost more than 38,000 lives and threatens to spill into neighboring countries.
The insurgency, in which Islamist militants have come increasingly to the fore, lacks weaponry to counter the Syrian military’s air power, tanks and artillery. Yet Assad’s forces have failed to crush the rebels, who hold swathes of territory.
The SNC hopes it can squeeze guarantees from international backers for more military aid or a no-fly zone to protect “liberated areas” in return for agreeing to join the new body.
But Washington rejects overt military involvement in Syria - although some in the opposition hope U.S. President Barack Obama might shift ground after he was reelected this week.
The SNC argues that even if it bows to U.S. pressure for a body that could present itself as a Syrian government-in-waiting, the new organization could not be left undefended.
“If we have a transitional government or something like that, we will need protection since it will work on the ground inside Syria,” said former SNC chief Abdulbaset Sieda.
A senior SNC figure said former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had told the group bluntly earlier this week to forget dreams of direct U.S. military aid or intervention.
But the SNC official, who asked not to be named, said this did not exclude military help from other unidentified nations.
U.S. diplomats have been hovering on the sidelines in Doha, where the SNC held several days of internal talks to revamp its own structure before the wider forum opened on Saturday.
The new body, if it sees the light of day, would expect international recognition and more funding and weapons.
It would represent Syria at the United Nations and form a government-in-waiting ready to replace Assad, along the lines of Libya’s Transitional National Council that took over last year.
SNC figures said a basic agreement could be reached this weekend, but that it would take weeks to thrash out details.
The SNC, founded in August last year, is seen as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. It is wary of seeing its influence diluted in the proposed 60-member assembly, where it might have about two-fifths of the seats.
SNC activists suspect the United States is seeking to take control of the opposition. Some clerics and youth activists have signaled opposition to taking part in any new body.
“The people inside Syria don’t see in the initiative a national vision. They see it as a way to undermine the revolution,” one young activist said in Doha.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Alistair Lyon