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Syrian opposition rallies to a new leader

In this Sept. 15, 2011, file photo, Bassma Kodmani and Abdulbaset Seida congratulate each other as a group of Syrian opposition members announced a Syrian National Council in their bid to present a united front against President Bashar Assad's regime, in Istanbul, Turkey.
AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

(AP) BEIRUT - Syria's main opposition group on Sunday picked a secular Kurd as its new leader after criticism that the former head was too autocratic and the group was becoming dominated by Islamists.

The opposition, hobbled by disorganization and infighting, is trying to pull together and appear more inclusive by choosing a member of an ethnic minority.

The opposition's disarray has frustrated Western powers eager to dislodge Syrian President Bashar Assad but unwilling or unable to send in their own forces to do it. There has been some willingness to support the rebels with funds and arms, but the lack of a cohesive front or a single address has hampered the efforts as the bloodshed intensifies.

On Sunday, government forces shelled rebel-held cities and villages, killing at least 38 people in the rebellious Homs district in central Syria, activists said. It was impossible to independently confirm the death toll.

The choice of Abdulbaset Sieda as head of the Syrian National Council is aimed at achieving several goals for the main opposition group.

Under outgoing leader Burhan Ghalioun, criticism mounted that the group was dominated by Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Sieda is a secular.

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Sieda is also a Kurd, and his selection could be an incentive for Syria's minority Kurds to take a more active role in the uprising. Up to now they have stayed mostly on the sidelines.

Selection of a member of a minority group could counter criticism that under Ghalioun, the umbrella organization was too autocratic. Sieda is seen as a neutral consensus figure.

"This is clearly an opportunity and there is clearly a need for a change," said Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.

However, key problems remain.

The SNC has only tenuous ties to the Free Syrian Army, which is doing most of the actual fighting against Assad's forces, and is itself little more than a disorganized collection of local militias.

Sieda, 56, an expert on ancient civilizations, is a longtime exile who lives in Sweden, like his predecessor, who is based in Paris. Activists actually doing the fighting in Syria worry that if they succeed in deposing Assad, the exiles will swoop in and take over.

The SNC must also gain the confidence of the international community, which is searching for effective ways to hasten the departure of Assad.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday that he could not rule out military intervention in Syria, saying the situation there is beginning to resemble the violence that gripped Bosnia in the 1990s.

Hague told Sky News television that time was "clearly running short" to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan. It was supposed to take effect on April 12 but never took hold.

Hague said Syria was "on the edge of collapse or of a sectarian civil war so I don't think we can rule anything out."

Sieda was elected unanimously for a three-month term as president at an SNC meeting in Istanbul that stretched into early hours of Sunday.