Syrian opposition prey to rampant infighting

Syrian Burhan Ghalioun, the head of Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, gives a press conference at Egyptian syndicate of journalists in Cairo on April 24, 2012.

(AP) BEIRUT - The head of Syria's main opposition council offered to resign Thursday after some members threatened to pull out of the umbrella group amid rampant infighting, striking a blow to efforts to present a united front against President Bashar Assad.

Burhan Ghalioun said he did not wish to be a divisive figure and was ready to step down, just days after he was re-elected to a third, three-month term as head of the Syrian National Council.

"I announce my resignation as soon as a new candidate is picked, either by consensus or new elections," he told The Associated Press. "I will continue to work to serve the revolution from my position as a member of the council."

Fifteen months into the uprising, Syria's opposition is still struggling to overcome infighting and inexperience, preventing the movement from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to Assad. Its international backers have repeatedly appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit.

Since its inception last September, the Syrian National Council has acted as the international face of the Syrian revolution and served as a reference point for Western leaders when it comes to the Syrian opposition. If it continues to deteriorate, it could complicate efforts for the West and others to get behind the opposition.

Ghalioun's statement came after a key activist group accused the SNC's leadership of marginalizing council members and acting alone on major decisions.

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The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists based both inside and outside of Syria, warned the SNC was drifting away from the spirit of the country's revolution and threatened to suspend its membership.

"We have seen nothing in the past months except political incompetence in the SNC and a total lack of consensus between its vision and that of the revolutionaries," the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists based both inside and outside of Syria, said in a statement.

The U.N. estimated in March that the violence in Syria has killed more than 9,000 people. Hundreds more have been killed since then as a revolt that began with mostly peaceful calls for reform has transformed into an armed insurgency.

The SNC, whose leaders are largely Syrian exiles, has tried with little success to gather the opposition under its umbrella and has alienated minorities inside Syria, including the Kurds and Alawites, the tiny sect to which Assad belongs.

The Alawite community has largely stuck by Assad.

Some opposition figures accuse its leadership of being out of touch with reality on the ground while several prominent dissidents have already quit the SNC, calling it an "autocratic" organization.

In a rare acknowledgment of shortcomings, a leading figure inside the council said the group needed an overhaul and should become more inclusive.

Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based senior council figure, said over the telephone Thursday that the LCC concerns were "justified and legitimate." She acknowledged this week's opposition meeting in Rome during which Ghalioun was re-elected for a third, three-month term as head of the SNC, was marred by the absence of several members and should have been better prepared and organized. She did not elaborate.

But Kodmani also said differences within the Syrian opposition were "natural and healthy" and a sign of democracy, "otherwise we would be just like the Baath Party and the Assad regime."

Ghalioun, a Sunni Muslim professor at the Sorbonne in Paris who has led the council since its formation in September, has been criticized by some opposition figures of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood and of trying to monopolize power.

Ghalioun ran against George Sabra, a Christian council member seen by many as a better choice to soothe concerns by Syria's religious minorities, some of whom have remained loyal to Assad out of fear for their future in case his regime collapses.

In a televised interview following his re-election, Ghalioun acknowledged divisions within the SNC and said the group was working on a new strategy.

Unlike Libya's National Transitional Council, which brought together most factions against Moammar Gadhafi's regime and was quickly recognized by much of the international community, Syria's opposition has no leadership on the ground and has not been officially recognized by significant powers.

A conference sponsored by the Arab League in Cairo to help unite the disparate opposition was canceled this week, largely because of infighting between various groups.