Syrian opposition seeks unity in Turkey as Assad tours ravaged Homs

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2012 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Syria's fractured opposition, prodded by Turkey and Qatar, on Tuesday announced a set of principles that would be enshrined in a new constitution after the fall of the government of President Bashar Assad, a move intended to show a united front ahead of a critical international meeting on Syria to be held here next week.

But some members of the opposition immediately criticized the group's statement for failing to call attention to the bloodshed currently taking place in Syria.

"There should have been solid recommendations for the solution of the current crisis, but there are only mentions regarding the future constitution. First, you have to stop the massacres," Tariq el Saed, a Syrian dissident from the Liberation and Construction Bloc told McClatchy.

The lack of cohesion among Assad's opponents has been a major challenge not only for opposition organizing, but also for regional leaders who are reluctant to work with dissidents with unproven street credibility and unknown popular support. Showing a united face has become even more critical in recent weeks as Assad's forces seem to have regained the military initiative in Syria, and diplomatic efforts to aid the opposition appear stymied.

The Arab League, which two months ago called for Assad to step down, is not expected to repeat the call when it meets in Baghdad later this week. A U.N. initiative led by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan to broker a ceasefire does not call for Assad to step aside.

Assad on Tuesday sought to show that his regime had vanquished its most militant opponents by touring the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the yearlong rebellion. Syrian television showed Assad walking through the streets of Baba Amr, which Syrian government troops occupied in early March after a 26-day siege that opponents say left hundreds dead.

The announcement in Turkey that a new constitution would establish a democratic republic and treat all citizens equally "regardless of their religious, national or intellectual backgrounds" came ahead of a "Friends of Syria" conference to be held in Istanbul on Monday.

At the first Friends of Syria meeting, in Tunisia last month, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there was little agreement on ways to help the opposition, and the group agreed to recognize the Syrian National Council as only "a representative" of the Syrian people and not as the embodiment of the anti-Assad forces.

The Syrian National Council led Tuesday's meeting, which was attended by about 200 Syrian opposition members from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministries, whose leaders are eager to unite the fractious opposition. Turkey has called for Assad to step down while Qatar has called for sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized group of military deserters and civilian volunteers that have taken up arms against Assad.

But despite the efforts at unity, the meeting was not without dissent. A key Assad opponent, Haitham al Maleh, walked out of the meeting as it began.

Saer al Haji, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, said his group likewise wasn't satisfied with the statement that emerged from the meeting.

"Nobody thinks about the people that are being killed now. They talk about the future of Syria after Assad is gone. However, Assad is still there now and nobody speaks about bringing in NATO to stop the bloodshed," Haji said.

Haji accused the governments of Turkey and Qatar of trying to engineer the Syrian National Council's claim to leading the opposition.

(Yezdani is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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