AMMAN (Reuters) - The head of Syria’s top opposition body said on Thursday he was ready to step down for the sake of unity among dissidents -exiled and in Syria - whose divisions have kept them from their goal of recognition as successors to President Bashar al-Assad.
“I declare my resignation as soon as a replacement is found through elections or consensus,” Syrian National Council (SNC) president Burhan Ghalioun told Reuters.
“I have not chosen this post for personal gain, but I have been accepting it to preserve cohesion. I am not ready to be a cause for division. The revolution is above personalities.”
Ghalioun, a sociologist based in France, was re-elected just two days earlier as head of the group he has led since August, a result that angered critics who had hoped to bring in a leader who would rectify what they see as Ghalioun’s failings.
These include failing to strengthen ties with anti-Assad forces in Syria, including a growing insurgency, and providing a liberal, secular veneer to an uprising whose armed element is drawn from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
The prominence of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the organization and finances of the SNC, and the sectarian Islamist language of rebels on the ground, have alarmed religious minorities and secularists in the opposition.
The resignation offer was welcomed by some of Ghalioun’s more vocal critics, who said it could pave the way for the SNC to patch up its rifts in the process of choosing another leader.
George Sabra, a leftist who came in second to Ghalioun in the SNC vote, said it would now be forced to bring under-represented opposition leaders and activists inside Syria, into its deliberations, adding: “The opposition needs to show its democratic credentials and bring in a new face.”
The Local Coordinating Committees, an activists’ network with a presence in Syria that had threatened to quit the council because it was estranged from activists on the ground, called the move “positive” and backed off resigning.
Meanwhile violence continued inside Syria, as residents of Rastan in central Syria said government forces shelled the town, and an opposition group said security forces carried out a campaign of arrests in suburbs of the capital Damascus, and skirmished with rebels.
The account from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said a total of 40 people had been killed by government forces across the country on Wednesday, could not be verified independently.
Syria has sharply restricted journalist access during an uprising that began with mass protests which Assad’s forces sought to put down violently, and now features an insurgency that takes the offensive against Assad’s rule.
Syria is five weeks into a ceasefire deal - brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan - that calls for the release of political prisoners and allowing peaceful protest as a elements of a strategy to map a path out of the country’s bloodshed.
But violence has barely slowed in the country, and a U.N. truce monitoring team was caught up earlier this week in an attack in northern Idlib province that saw at least 21 people killed, and observers forced to spent a night with rebels who pledged they were protecting them.
Syria has pledged political reforms to resolve the crisis, including a parliamentary election this week which followed on constitutional reform that allowed for political parties other than the ruling Baath - moves dissidents call hollow.
Damascus has maintained all along that it is facing a “terrorist” conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by resource-rich Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have called for arming the fighters aiming to oust Assad.
Assad sounded that theme anew in a rare interview with Russian television on Wednesday, warning: “...it’s becoming clear that this is not ‘Spring’ but chaos, and as I have said, if you sow chaos in Syria you may be infected by it yourself.”
Syria earlier this month sent the United Nations the names of 26 foreign nationals it said had been apprehended after coming to fight in Syria. It described 20 of those as members of al Qaeda who had entered the country from Turkey.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Myra MacDonald