* Syrian dissidents gather for talks in Rome
* Critics say Ghalioun remote from Assad’s foes at home
By Oliver Holmes
ROME (Reuters) - The Syrian National Council (SNC), a fractious umbrella group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, gathered on Saturday for three days of talks aimed at deciding on its own leadership and shoring up its credibility at home and abroad.
Two SNC executive committee members, Samir Nashar and George Sabra, said the council was discussing whether to reelect Burhan Ghalioun, its president since it was set up in exile in August.
The Paris-based academic has been criticised for being out of touch with the opposition inside Syria and for failing to unify the SNC, which has yet to win full international recognition as the Syrian people’s legitimate representative.
“We are in heated discussions over the presidency ... We are against an extension or a renewal of Burhan Ghalioun’s term,” said Nashar, a member of the Damascus Declaration, a faction within the SNC.
“We are in favour of transition because it gives all the various Syrian political components a chance in the post,” Nashar told Reuters in Rome, where the SNC was meeting.
Nashar, who left Syria after an initial arrest in Aleppo in 2006, said he favoured Sabra to lead the SNC “for many reasons, mainly because he is an opposition member from inside Syria”.
Interviewed separately, Sabra declined to say if he was a candidate, but advocated radical reforms for a group that has been prone to political wrangling and a lack of transparency.
“We have to change the way decisions are made between people, between the establishments of the SNC, between the components of the SNC,” he said, without elaborating.
Sabra spent years in prison under Assad’s rule and that of his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad before fleeing to France last year. He has acted as a spokesman for the SNC.
“We need so many things to be changed,” he said. “We have a plan, we have a committee that did something good ... but we have to reach the end of these (reforms).”
Nashar is among those who argue that putting Sabra, a Christian, at the head of the SNC would help reassure Syrian minorities wary of the largely Sunni Muslim revolt that their rights would be respected if Assad, whose minority Alawite sect dominates power, is overthrown.
Assad’s supporters say minorities would be at risk if the revolt succeeded. They denounce the Muslim Brotherhood, long repressed in Syria and now a driving force of the SNC.
“The SNC wants to send a clear message to all components of the Syrian community, Alawite, Christians, Druze and all the minorities, that the SNC is not a council for Muslims only as the regime seeks to portray it,” said Nashar.
The United Nations says Syrian state forces have killed more than 9,000 people during the 14-month-old revolt. Damascus says “armed terrorist groups” have killed 2,600 security personnel.
Editing by Alistair Lyon