Burhan Ghalioun 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER Iraq)
ISTANBUL - A meeting of Syrian opposition groups on Tuesday that aimed to show they can unite to form an alternative to President Bashar Assad, was marred when a veteran dissident and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.
Leading opposition figures were invited by Turkey and Qatar, which holds the rotating chair of the Arab League, to the talks in Istanbul to seek a common front in their year-old uprising against Assad.
Criticism of both the way the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, was being run and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood was rife among more than 300 dissidents attending the gathering at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a suburb on the Asian side of the Turkish city.
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting dominated by the internal divisions, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani voiced support for a peace and ceasefire plan drawn up by U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, so long as it led to Assad's removal.
"This is for us a position that cannot change because thousands of Syrians have died for it, Kodmani said.
Assad's government said on Tuesday that it had accepted Annan's plan, but other SNC members dismissed Assad's word.
"He is buying time. It means more killing. He is playing games," said Adib Shishakly. "Every hour we are losing five people. So really, time is life."
In an opening address to the meeting, Turkish foreign ministry official Halit Celik said there was no alternative to Assad's regime going, and he extended support to the SNC as a platform for different strands of the opposition.
Shortly afterwards, however, Haitham al-Maleh, a venerable opposition figure who was jailed by both Assad and his father, walked out of the hall after SNC President Burhan Ghalioun set out an action plan that called for greater unity.
"I want to see the council act democratically. Until now, they are acting like the (ruling) Baath Party," Maleh, who withdrew from the SNC last month, told Reuters.Internal War
Representatives of Syria's Kurds followed suit, saying the SNC had failed to explicitly address Kurdish hopes of having an autonomous federal region within a post-Assad Syria.
"If we don't reach an agreement now, these issues will be more complicated after the regime," Abdulhakim Basar, of the Kurdish National Council, told Reuters.
"Maybe we are afraid of an internal war between the Syrian factions, so we prefer to reach an agreement now to avoid this. Syria has to be for all Syrians without discrimination."
Opposition disunity has fed fears that Syria could slide into sectarian and ethnic conflict, giving pause to governments which would otherwise be glad to see Assad's downfall.
Turkey will host a "Friends of Syria" meeting of mostly Western and Arab foreign ministers on April 1 to try to agree measures to persuade Assad to call off his security forces, let in humanitarian aid and allow a political transition.
Leading opposition figures will also attend.
The splits among the opposition are unsurprising, given that political life in Syria has been dominated by 42 years of Assad family rule.
Faced with growing rancor, SNC president Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, offered to meet with all opposition blocs on Wednesday, after the official one-day conference is over.
Ghalioun had earlier outlined an SNC action plan that included raising international backing and support for peaceful protests. It also proposed that it should help organize and arm the rebel Syrian Free Army, established by army defectors to resist Assad's forces, and raise money to pay recruits.
Ghalioun also advocated the adoption of a "national oath", committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed.
"The executive council will have to do something to show it is listening to people," said a diplomat observing the meeting. "There is a feeling it is not transparent or democratic enough."