DOHA (Reuters) - 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 neighbors fear that hardline Islamist groups close to al Qaeda are growing in influence among rebels on the ground in Syria.
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 targeting 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.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by David Stamp