Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Syrian forces shell cities as opposition picks leader

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Syrian government forces shelled rebel strongholds across the country Sunday, opponents of the government said, while the main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, chose a new leader.

The shelling struck at targets in and around Homs in central Syria and near al-Heffa, just east of the port of Latakia, as well as other locations, opposition groups said. The violence continues despite a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, which has so far had little effect on the conflict, and the presence of international monitors.

The new leader of the council, announced on Sunday in Istanbul, is Abdulbaset Sieda, a Kurdish professor of Arabic and philosophy who promised that the organization would be overhauled.

"We will expand and extend the base of the council," he told reporters at a news conference, "so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade."

The Syrian National Council, formed last fall, has been plagued by infighting and has been criticized as ineffective, amounting to little more than a front for the long-exiled Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood with little influence inside the country. Its top post was supposed to rotate every three months, but Bourhan Ghalioun, another exiled academic, held onto it until an outcry over his most recent re-election in May, especially from inside Syria, prompted him to step down.

Council members involved in the process hailed Sieda's election as proof that the Syrian opposition was committed to upholding democratic principles and the idea of a "leaderless revolution." He ran unopposed.

Sieda, who turns 56 on Tuesday, has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, and calls himself an independent. As a Kurd, he belongs to a minority that was oppressed for years by the Syrian government.

Still, critics both in and outside the council said Sieda had emerged as the consensus choice precisely because he represents no one, either inside Syria or out. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals in the council concluded that he did not pose a threat or provide an advantage to any bloc within the council, they said, but for the same reasons he will have little real authority, and the bickering will continue.

"The Muslim Brotherhood, especially, does not want a strong person," said Hasan Kasem, a young liberal activist. "Neither someone with political strength nor a strong personality."

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