DOHA, Qatar – The newly elected leader of Syria’s main opposition group slammed the international community for what he called inaction, saying Saturday that fighters are in desperate need of weapons to break the stalemate with President Bashar Assad’s forces.
George Sabra’s comments came as his Syrian National Council struggled with other opposition groups to try to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership as rebels step up attacks against regime forces.
Two suicide car bombers struck a military camp in the southern city of Daraa on Saturday, killing at least 20 government soldiers and prompting clashes in the area, activists said.
Bombings targeting state security institutions have become frequent in recent months, raising Western fears that extremists fighting with the rebels could gain influence. That’s one of the reasons the rebels’ foreign backers are wary of providing weapons.
The United States also has become increasingly frustrated with the opposition’s inability to overcome deep divisions and rivalries in order to present a single conduit for foreign support.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized the SNC late last month and called for a leadership that can rally wider support among activists fighting the regime on the ground.
Sabra, who was elected by the SNC on Friday, said the international community should support the opposition and send arms without conditions, rather than linking aid to an overhaul of the leadership.
The Syrian opposition may have many foreign friends, he told the Associated Press in an interview, “but unfortunately we get nothing from them, except some statements, some encouragement.” The regime “has few friends, but these friends give the regime everything,” he added, referring to Assad allies Russia, China and Iran.
Sabra, 65, headed the SNC delegation Saturday in talks in the Qatari capital of Doha on a Western-backed proposal that would give the group only about one-third of 60 seats on a leadership panel to make room for more activists from inside Syria, including those fighting on the front lines.
The outcome of the talks will be crucial not just for the SNC, widely seen as out of touch with activists on the ground in Syria, but for the future of the entire opposition. Without unity among opposition groups, the international community is unlikely to step up aid.
Sabra, a Christian and a veteran left-wing dissident who was repeatedly imprisoned by the regime, said the SNC agrees that unity is important but suggested his group would not accept a deal that could lead to its demise.
The choice of a Christian to lead the SNC could help counter Western concerns about the influence of Islamists in the group. A senior Brotherhood figure, Mohammed Farouk Taifour, was chosen as Sabra’s deputy.
But analysts said Sabra’s election was unlikely to significantly change the situation.
“I don’t think his election will do anything to persuade the detractors of the SNC that it has become more attractive and democratic,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center. Sabra is an SNC insider, and “his election is part of continuity, not change,” he added.
Senior SNC members portrayed Saturday’s meeting as the beginning of what could be days of negotiations over the size and mission of any leadership group. Other opposition delegates said an agreement on the new body is imminent.
Riad Seif, another veteran dissident who presented the reform plan, has said the new group would be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and would receive billions of dollars in aid.
Sabra said he and the 66-year-old Seif are old friends and even shared a jail cell when both were rounded up after the March 2011 outbreak of the uprising against the regime. “The problem is with the initiative itself,” he said of Seif’s plan, arguing that it’s too vague.
Haitham Maleh, a veteran Syrian opposition leader, said discussions with Sabra will continue but the leadership group might be formed without the SNC if an agreement can’t be reached.
“If they (SNC representatives) don’t accept having a common body, we could form a political body alone,” Maleh said.
Damascus has dismissed the meeting in Doha, and Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi called it a political folly. In an interview on state-run Syrian TV aired late Friday, al-Zoubi said those who “meet in hotels” abroad are “deluding themselves” if they think they can overthrow the government.
Syrians, who fled violence and found refuge in neighboring countries, like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, urged Sabra and other opposition leaders to work together to end bloodshed.
“Our priority is to stop killing of the Syrian people. They should unite and become a single entity,” said Abdulrahman Mostafa, 33, who has been living in the Yayladagi refugee camp in Turkey’s Hatay province along the border with Syria. “If our leaders are not united, how can we stand united as a people?”
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the violence in their country, inundating neighboring countries. As many as 11,000 crossed the borders on Friday, a surge attributed to fighting at Ras al-Ayn in the predominantly Kurdish oil-producing northeastern province of al-Hasaka.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests in Daraa, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions in the Middle East. But a regime crackdown prompted fierce fighting, propelling the conflict into a civil war that has taken on sectarian overtones. In all, activists say more than 36,000 people have been killed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said two suicide bombers drove their explosives-laden cars into a military encampment behind the officer’s club in Daraa in quick succession. It said at least 20 soldiers were killed, most in the second explosion.
Other activists described explosions that targeted the high security area but didn’t say they were suicide attacks. State-run news agency SANA reported triple car bombings in Daraa that killed seven civilians and wounded several others.
The government rarely provides death tolls for security forces, and the discrepancy could not be reconciled or independently verified.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack, but Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-inspired extremist group that is fighting alongside the rebels, has said it was responsible for similar bombings in the past.
In other violence, Syrian TV said a locally made rocket slammed into a four-story residential building in the district of al-Qassaa in the capital of Damascus, wounding two young women.
SANA said three mortar rounds were fired in central Damascus Saturday evening, injuring several people and damaging a clinic in a residential building in al-Tilyani neighborhood.
The state media blamed “terrorists” for the attacks — the term used by the Syrian government to describe rebels.
Surk reported from Beirut. Zeina Karam in Beirut, Mehmet Guzel in Yayladagi, Turkey, and Abdullah Rebhy in Doha contributed to this report.