DOHA, Qatar – The newly elected leader of Syria's main opposition bloc in exile struck a combative tone Saturday, saying international inaction rather than divisions among anti-regime groups are to blame for the inability to end the bloodshed in Syria.
George Sabra, the new head of the Syrian National Council, told The Associated Press in an interview that the international community should support those trying to topple President Bashar Assad without strings attached, rather than linking aid to an overhaul of the opposition leadership.
Sabra, a Christian and a veteran left-wing dissident who was repeatedly imprisoned by the regime, said he and others in the opposition feel let down by their Western and Arab allies.
The Syrian opposition may have many foreign friends, he said, "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.
The U.S. has become increasingly frustrated with the SNC's failure to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership, which would provide a single conduit for future foreign support. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized the group late last month.
Sabra, 65, headed an SNC delegation Saturday in talks with rival opposition groups on forging a new, broader opposition leadership.
The SNC has been reluctant to join such a group, fearing it would lose influence within a larger platform. Under the reform plan presented by another veteran dissident, Riad Seif, the SNC would receive only about one-third of 60 seats to make room for more activists from inside Syria.
Sabra said the SNC agrees that unity within opposition ranks is important, but suggested it would not accept a deal that could lead to its demise.
Senior SNC members portrayed the meeting as the beginning of what could be days of negotiations over the size and mission of such a group.
Seif has said his plan enjoys broad international support. Once a new group is formed, it would be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and be given billions of dollars in aid, he said earlier this week.
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.
The outcome of the talks will be crucial not just for the SNC, widely seen as out of touch with activists and rebels fighting on the ground but for the future of the entire opposition. Without unity among opposition groups, the international community is unlikely to step up aid.
Sabra said that the West is unfairly trying to shift blame to the opposition for the violent deadlock in the Syria conflict, which activists say has claimed more than 36,000 lives.
"We see that the obstacle in finding a positive solution for the Syrian people and protecting the Syrian people is not the (lack of) unity of the opposition, but the inability of the international community" to take decisive action, he told reporters. Assad's allies have shielded him repeatedly from harsher U.N. Security Council measures.
In the AP interview, Sabra acknowledged that some of the criticism of the SNC was justified but said that this should not serve as an excuse to hold up international aid.
"Let's say, we have our responsibility, no doubt about that, and we will carry this responsibility, but we need from the international community to carry their responsibility also," he said.
Sabra was elected late Friday by 28 of 41 members of the SNC's decision-making body, also chosen during the group's conference this week in the Qatari capital of Doha. The choice of a Christian to lead the SNC could help counter Western concerns about the influence of Islamists from the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood in the group.
Sabra dismissed suggestions that he was chosen as a figurehead acceptable to the West, allowing Islamists pull the strings behind the scenes. "If anybody looks to my profile, nobody can put me as a picture only in front of him," he said.
A senior Brotherhood figure, Mohammed Farouk Taifour, was chosen as Sabra's deputy.
Sabra argued that his election is proof that the Syrian opposition is not beholden to sectarianism, even though Syria's civil war has strong sectarian overtones.
The Assad regime has traditionally courted minorities, including Christians, to shore up its rule. The regime is dominated by Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslim. Sabra said he believes Christian support for Assad is slipping.
Sabra has been a prominent opposition figure since 1970, initially in the Communist party and later as a social democrat, and was jailed from 1987 to 1995. After the start of the uprising, Sabra was imprisoned twice more, fled to Jordan on foot a year ago and settled in Paris. Sabra is a veteran politician, but said he also taught geography in high school and wrote for children's TV, including the Arabic version of Sesame Street.
The new SNC leader said Syrians will continue fighting even if the international community does not step up.
"We will fetch weapons everywhere, we will depend on ourselves," he said. "There is no way for Syrians to give up seeking ... freedom and dignity."
Associated Press writer Abdullah Rebhy in Doha contributed reporting.