DOHA: Veteran dissident George Sabra, a Christian former communist, was elected president of the main opposition bloc the Syrian National Council at a meeting in Doha on Friday.
The SNC’s 41-member general secretariat, itself newly elected, chose Sabra, who garnered 28 votes, as part of efforts to revamp the group working to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Faruk Tayfur of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected his vice president.
Sabra, in his first statement as SNC chief, vowed to “work with other components of the Syrian opposition to accelerate the fall of the (president’s) criminal regime.”
Asked what he wanted from the international community, he said: “We have only one demand, and that is to stop the bloodbath and help the Syrian people chase out this bloody regime by providing us with weapons.
“We want arms,” Sabra said three times.
A long-time opponent of Assad rule, first under the current president’s father Hafez and later after Bashar took over in 2000, Sabra left Syria secretly at the beginning of the year.
He was jailed for eight years under Hafez al-Assad, and detained twice - for a month and then two months - after the uprising erupted in March last year.
Sabra was freed in September 2011, and immediately went into hiding before his departure early this year.
The election of a Christian as SNC leader sends a strong message to the international community, given that the Assad regime paints itself as defenders of Christianity against Islamist extremism.
It also shows the bloc’s willingness to be broadly representative of the Syrian people: the outgoing SNC chief, Abdel Basset Sayda, is a Kurd.
However, a major activist network quit the bloc on Friday amid divisions between the opposition, and other anti-Assad groups went ahead with a unity meeting in Doha even though the SNC had asked for a delay.
The SNC had sought to meet on Saturday after choosing a new chief, having already elected the secretariat, a third of them Islamists, and as it faced charges of not being representative enough.
“We requested a postponement of 24 hours - we are in the electoral process,” Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the new team, told AFP before Sabra was elected.
But the Local Coordination Committees, a major network of on-the-ground activists, said it had withdrawn from the SNC over its failure to adopt “serious and effective” reforms to make it more representative.
Other opposition groups, who were waiting at a hotel in the Qatari capital, decided to go ahead with their meeting brokered by Qatar and the Arab League on Friday evening, regardless of the SNC’s demand for a delay.