Syrian opposition meets in Turkey

AP News
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Posted: May 31, 2011 10:49 AM
Syrian opposition meets in Turkey

Opponents of the Syrian regime gathered on Turkey's Mediterranean coast on Tuesday for a conference aimed at overcoming their differences and bolstering protesters who have endured a bloody crackdown under President Bashar Assad.

The meeting in the southwestern city of Antalya has drawn Syrian exiles living in the West and the Middle East who do not have a significant following inside the country, as well as some activists from inside Syria. Some prominent opposition figures stayed away, reflecting tactical and other differences.

Organizers said they recognized that real change must come from within the country, a towering challenge in the face of repressive measures, as well as the fractured state of Syria's ethnic and religious groups.

"It's not easy to have a united voice, but this conference will be a step to have a more united, coherent opposition," said Radwan Ziade, a participant and a scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University in the United States. He noted that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded without a unified opposition, though security forces in those nations refrained from the sustained use of violence to counter the demonstrations.

The Antalya conference plans to form committees to organize protests outside Syrian embassies, represent the opposition in meetings with governments in the West and elsewhere, and publicize the conflict in Syria, where a media blackout and the expulsion of foreign reporters has sharply restricted the flow of information.

Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed and thousands of others arrested in the Syrian crackdown, which has drawn condemnation and sanctions from the United States and European Union.

Syria describes the ten-week old revolt as a conspiracy led by Islamic extremists and armed gangs. It has made some pledges of reform and amnesty, but appears determined to crush its opponents with overwhelming firepower.

Turkey's Anatolia news agency said a group of Assad supporters protested outside the Antalya hotel where the several hundred delegates are staying. The conference ends Thursday.

Burhan Ghalioun, a leading regime critic and a scholar of contemporary oriental studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, skipped the meeting.

"The conference does not represent all the Syrian opposition, they should have taken more time to consult with other members, to have a clearer agenda and clearer targets," he said in a telephone interview. He said there were "different interpretations" concerning timing and the way of work.

"It would have been better to wait, to complete consultations, perhaps to agree on a national council that would comprise everybody," he said.

Reached by telephone inside Syria, another government opponent said he was concerned that the Antalya forum would be "used to serve private and foreign agendas."

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because he did not want to appear as if he sought to divide the opposition.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria and a key figure at the conference, said opposition figures whose movements are restricted in Syria sent letters, and some protesters who were not well-known to authorities were able to attend.

Qurabi said Turkey was chosen as a venue because of its proximity, and its relatively free environment and good security. Turkey, which had cultivated close ties with Assad, has urged him to implement democratic reforms.

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Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.