Syrian forces shell cities as opposition picks leader

The New York Times reports: Syrian government forces shelled rebel strongholds across the country on 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 United Nations-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 Abdelbaset Sieda, a Kurdish professor of Arabic and philosophy who promised 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 on to 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 Mr. 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.

“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person — because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee. Until such time as there are free elections in Syria, she said, the choice of the president of the council should be made by consensus.

“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” Ms. Kodmani said. “Personalization leads to polarization.”

An editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star says: Choosing a Kurd to replace Burhan Ghalioun is a very healthy choice, confirming that the opposition is a nationalistic platform, not confined to protecting one group’s priorities over another, and one which is concerned with the rights of every minority. Sida was elected on merit only, not on the basis of his sect, his religion or his background.

However he faces many severe challenges. Acknowledging Sunday that his first task is to reform and restructure the council is important. But he must urgently seek to draw all opposition factions under one cohesive umbrella: Their disunity and differences have, until now, been the stumbling block in their progress in deposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This fragmentation has served as a key justification for those – whether in the West or in the Arab world – who have claimed that they would otherwise provide greater support, material or otherwise, to the rebels.

The election of Sida comes at a critical time, when violence appears to be intensifying at an alarming rate. Civil war is now in full swing, despite the tendency for commentators, politicians and journalists to define it otherwise.

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