DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Syria's main opposition bloc began electing new leaders Wednesday, amid intense international pressure from critics who say the exile-dominated group does not represent those risking their lives on the frontlines to oust President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian National Council's general assembly of some 420 members was choosing two new leadership bodies and a president during a convention in the Qatari capital of Doha, with results expected later in the day.
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.
SNC officials said Wednesday that the internal election may not be enough to deflect such criticism 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.
On Tuesday evening, Seif presented the plan to the SNC conference in a stormy five-hour session and was rebuffed, though there was no vote, said Anas Abdah, a conference organizer. Seif later amended the plan, saying the SNC could have 22 out of 60 seats, but failed to win backing for the idea, Abdah said.
His initiative 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 suggested Tuesday 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.
In Wednesday's SNC election, delegates were to choose 40 members of a general secretariat, 11 members of an executive body and a president. Activists in Syria who joined recently as part of an attempt to broaden the SNC base were to vote by Skype and other means, organizers said.