Infighting plagues Syria opposition conference

KARIN LAUB Associated Press Published:

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- A plan to shake up Syria's widely criticized opposition leadership and forge a more representative team has won the backing of several key countries, the proposal's author said Sunday, even as other anti-regime groups pushed back against the idea.

The dispute, which reflects the infighting and deep rifts that have hobbled the opposition since the Syrian revolt began in March 2011, is to be resolved at a five-day opposition conference that got under way Sunday in Doha.

Much is at stake, since failure to reform could cost those trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad badly needed international assistance. The West has been reluctant to send money and other support, such as weapons, because the opposition is seen as fractured and leaderless.

Riad Seif, a prominent Syrian dissident, has proposed to set up a new leadership team of about 50 people, including more representatives from inside Syria, such as military commanders and local leaders in rebel-held areas. Those fighting in Syria, including the rebel Free Syrian Army, have been particularly dismissive of opposition leaders in exile.

Seif's plan would significantly dilute the influence of the current main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which largely consists of exiles and academics and has been criticized as ineffective and out of touch.

Seif told reporters at the Doha conference that a dozen or so key countries backing the Syrian opposition support his plan. He did not specify which nations, or explain why he was confident about having won their support.

He said that if he can persuade the SNC to adopt the idea, the international community would then convene a conference of the Friends of Syria -- an alliance of countries backing the rebels -- in Morocco to endorse the new team.

A decision on a new leadership team is expected on Thursday, the last day of the conference, he said.

"We hope that if the Syrians find a way to choose their leadership on Nov. 8th (Thursday), in this case, the whole world will be behind them," said the 66-year-old, who left Syria a few months ago.

At the Morocco conference, "maybe 100 countries will recognize this new leadership as the legitimate and only representative of the Syrians," he said. Seif did not say what kind of practical support the opposition could expect at the conference, but suggested the Morocco gathering would be a launching pad for a transitional government.

The U.S. has demanded a leadership overhaul, becoming increasingly critical of the SNC. A senior U.S. official has said the U.S. did not want to attend another Friends of Syria conference until a shakeup has taken place.

Senior SNC officials on Sunday balked at Seif's plan and criticized the U.S. for its perceived meddling in the opposition's decision-making.

Abdelbaset Sieda, the SNC chief, said he and others in the group have not rejected Seif's plan outright, but believe the SNC at the least deserves better representation. Sieda told The Associated Press that SNC should control at least 40 percent of any new leadership body being established, arguing the group represents wide segments of Syrian society.

"It is unfair to say that the SNC represents (those) outside Syria," he said.

More than 400 delegates are attending the conference, during which the SNC will choose a new leadership, before voting on Seif's plan Wednesday.