DOHA, Qatar – The main Syrian opposition bloc on Monday broadened its ranks to accommodate more activists and political groups from inside the country, officials said, in an apparent nod to international demands for a more representative and cohesive leadership.
However, the Syrian National Council's reforms, approved on the second day of a five-day convention in Doha, may not suffice to counter a U.S.-backed plan to create a new opposition leadership that would greatly dilute the SNC's influence. The U.S. has criticized the SNC, dominated by exiles and academics, as ineffective and out of touch with those fighting in Syria to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Under the U.S.-backed plan, proposed by prominent dissident Riad Seif, the SNC would become part of a new leadership group, holding only 15 of the organization's 50 seats — thus making room for more representatives from inside Syria.
"The SNC is in an existential struggle right now," Doha-based analyst Salman Shaikh said of the wrangling within the Syrian opposition. After four days of internal SNC meetings, the group will meet with Seif and his supporters on Thursday to discuss the new leadership plan.
The SNC would risk further strain with its increasingly impatient foreign backers if it is perceived as the main obstacle to a unified opposition. On Monday, SNC members floated counter proposals to Seif's plan in an attempt to circumvent it.
The outgoing SNC leadership, to be replaced in elections Tuesday and Wednesday, said Thursday's meeting should focus on the formation of a transitional government instead of the composition of the opposition's leadership, according to Anas Abdah, an SNC conference organizer.
U.S.-based Syrian academic Radwan Ziadeh proposed convening a 300-member national conference in rebel-controlled Syrian territory close to Turkey. The conference, representing SNC members, military commanders, technocrats and local council leaders in equal measure, would form a transitional government to administer the rebel-run areas, he said.
SNC members suggested that their Qatari hosts, eager to forge a unified opposition, would keep delegates in Doha until a deal is reached. However, participants could fail to rally around one plan because of divisions in the opposition.
The SNC conference is being held at a time of deepening distrust between the SNC and the West.
Washington and other foreign backers say they can't boost aid to Syrian rebels unless the opposition is united and represents more diverse groups within Syrian society, including those fighting on the ground in Syria. On the other hand, many in the opposition feel abandoned by the international community and say they're not getting the money and weapons they need to topple Assad.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is looking for "an opposition that represents more of the groups, more of the geographic representation, more of those who have been involved on the ground with local coordinating councils, with revolution councils."
Syria's bloody 19-month conflict, which activists say has killed more than 36,000 people, is stuck in a military stalemate rebel fighters blame on a lack of strategic weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles. Islamic militant fighters have also assumed more prominent roles in recent months.
With control of Syria almost certainly to be decided on the battlefield, the political opposition led by exiles like those in the SNC is being further sidelined. Since the group's founding a year ago, the U.S. and others have urged the SNC to forge a more cohesive coalition with more representatives from inside Syria.
The SNC's vote Monday to broaden its ranks was aimed at deflecting such criticism. A majority of 222 delegates voted to add several dozen more groups, nearly doubling the size of the SNC's general assembly to around 420, said Abdah, the SNC official. The expansion added more women, activists from inside Syria and representatives of local councils, he said.
Abdah said the majority "of the people who were added to this are people who belong to groups and alliances that were formed (in Syria) during the time of the revolution."
Nuland declined to say whether the decision was a step in the right direction.
"Just broadening the numbers doesn't necessarily broaden the representation, so I think we have to see who they actually bring into the group," she said.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed reporting.