DOHA, Qatar – Syria's main opposition bloc elected an all-male leadership team early Thursday, undermining its own bid to showcase itself as a more diverse group that can represent all those trying to oust President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian National Council's general assembly of some 420 members chose a 40-member leadership body after hours of voting at a conference held at a hotel in the Qatari capital of Doha. The 40-member group is to choose an 11-member executive body and an SNC president later Thursday.
The SNC, largely made up of exiles and heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, has been criticized as ineffective and out of touch with those trying to topple Assad. The U.S. wants a more cohesive and representative opposition, suggesting the SNC's leadership days are over.
When the SNC election results were announced, women delegates jumped up in protest. Some of the male delegates joined their demands that several women be added to the leadership group retroactively.
"This is a big problem," Rima Fleihan, a Syrian writer and women's activists, said of the marginal role of women in the political opposition in exile, noting that women in Syria are key activists in anti-regime protests.
SNC officials said Wednesday that the internal election may not be enough to deflect criticism of the group and halt U.S.-backed efforts to set up a broader opposition leadership council in which the SNC's influence would be diluted.
Under that plan, Syrian dissident Riad Seif initially proposed the SNC would receive only 15 out of 50 seats in the new group, to make room for activists from inside Syria. Seif's plan is to be discussed Thursday at a wider meeting of opposition groups.
SNC spokesman George Sabra said he believes the U.S. and Qatar support a new opposition leadership along those lines, even if the final details still need to be sorted out. He said the opposition is under intense pressure to conclude a deal before leaving Doha.
SNC leaders met Tuesday with U.S. diplomats on the sidelines of the Doha conference, said Sabra, who attended the discussions.
The diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told the SNC that Washington wants to see a unified opposition negotiate a political transition with members of the Syrian regime who don't have blood on their hands, said Sabra and another participant, SNC political strategist Louay Safi.
The U.S. diplomats reiterated that the Washington would not intervene militarily, either by sending weapons or enforcing a no-fly zone to assist the rebels, said Safi and Sabra. Assad and members of his inner circle would have to leave before such talks can begin, they said of the U.S. position.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested that Assad could be allowed safe passage out of the country if that would guarantee an end to the nation's civil war.
U.S. officials in the region had no immediate comment Wednesday.