- Associated Press - Thursday, May 17, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main opposition council is crumbling under the weight of infighting and divisions over issues that cut to the heart of the revolution, including accusations that the movement is becoming as autocratic as the regime it wants to drive out.

The slow disintegration of the Syrian National Council, which has become the international face of the uprising, could complicate Western efforts to bolster the opposition, just as President Bashar Assad’s regime gathers momentum in its crackdown on dissent.

On Thursday, SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun, amid mounting criticism of his leadership, said he was ready to step down once a replacement is found.

The decision came just days after he was re-elected for a third three-month term during a council vote held in Rome. The council has said it would rotate the presidency every three months, so Mr. Ghalioun’s repeated appointments rankled some who wanted a new face.

“I will not accept under any circumstances to be a divisive candidate, and I am not after any post,” said Mr. Ghalioun, an exiled Syrian and professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. “I will resign as soon as a new candidate is picked, either by consensus or new elections.”

Mr. Ghalioun, a secular Sunni Muslim academic 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.

Fifteen months into the uprising, Syria’s opposition still is struggling to overcome internal rivalries and power struggles that prevent the movement from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to Mr. Assad. Its international backers repeatedly have appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit.

But as the conflict becomes more violent, with rebel fighters and others taking up arms, attempts to operate under a single umbrella have become increasingly difficult.

“Although (the SNC) was conceptualized as a formation designed to represent society as a whole, it has played a very polarizing role. By mishandling personality issues, it has alienated more prominent opposition figures than necessary,” said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank.

The United Nations 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.

Since its inception last September, the Syrian National Council has served as a reference point for Western leaders when it comes to the Syrian opposition.

But the SNC, whose leaders are largely Syrian exiles, has tried with little success to unify the opposition and has alienated minorities inside Syria, including the Kurds and the Alawites, the tiny sect to which Mr. Assad belongs. The Alawite community has largely stuck by Mr. Assad.

Some opposition figures accuse the SNC leadership of being out of touch with the reality on the ground. Several prominent dissidents already have quit the organization, calling it “autocratic.”

In response to the discord and perceived ineffectiveness of the group, some Syrian protesters recently have taken to carrying banners written on them: “The SNC does not represent me.”

In the northern town of Binnish, protesters this week held a poster mocking Mr. Ghalioun, saying preparations were under way to “crown him as emperor because no alternative among Syria’s 23 million population could be found.”

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