A group of Syrian opposition activists announced Thursday the creation of a council designed to present a united front against President Bashar Assad's regime, which has waged a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters during the past six months.
The Syrian opposition consists of a variety of groups with often differing ideologies, including Islamists and secularists, and there have been many meetings of dissidents who say they represent the opposition. But activists said the new "Syrian National Council," formed during a meeting in Turkey, is the most serious initiative aimed at bringing revolutionary forces together.
It groups some 140 opposition figures, including exiled opponents and 70 dissidents inside Syria, said Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based academic. Kodmani added that the council "categorically opposes" any foreign intervention or military operations to bring down Assad's regime.
"We are in agreement over the peaceful nature of the revolution," she said.
The United States gave its support, noting the difficulties the groups are facing.
"Any opposition movement in Syria faces tremendous obstacles," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "It's very hard for them to organize politically and to draft and communicate a platform while their members and leaders are being hunted down and killed."
On Thursday the State Department repeated a stern travel warning that "urges U.S. citizens in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available" and refrain from traveling to Syria. It noted new sanctions restricting support by U.S. citizens to the Syrian government since the last warning on Aug. 5.
A popular uprising began in Syria in mid-March, amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that have already toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has reacted with deadly force that the U.N. estimates has left some 2,600 people dead.
The meeting in Istanbul took place as Syrian troops carried out raids in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the central province of Homs and the northwestern region of Idlib that borders Turkey, activists said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one person was killed and five were wounded when security forces opened fire during raids in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani. The group said a paramedic who was wounded last week also died in hospital on Thursday.
The new opposition council aims to "convey the Syrian people's just problems on the international platform, to form a pluralist and democratic state," a statement said. It also hopes to bring down the "leadership that is ruling through dictatorship, and to unite the prominent politicians under one umbrella."
The reason it took so long to form the council is that "we wanted to make sure everyone was on board," said Adib Shishakli, an opposition member based in Saudi Arabia. Shishakli said the council would elect a leader at a later time.
Ahmad Ramadan, another opposition member, said the council would form 10 bureaus, including a foreign relations office dedicated to "relaying the demands of the revolution, the people's requests to the outside world." He said it would also work to form a television station to help overthrow the regime.
Louay Safi, a U.S.-based academic, said the council is broad-based and includes Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is "open to everyone unless they are against democracy," he said.
The emphasis on unity comes amid fears of civil war between Assad's ruling minority Alawite sect and the country's Sunni Muslim majority.
Also Thursday, Syrian state TV aired an interview with Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, one of the first officers to defect after the uprising began. The pro-government daily Al-Watan said he was detained during "a special operation" in Idlib.
Harmoush, of the so-called Free Officers Movement, has previously appeared in videos calling on the army to stand by the people instead of the regime.
In the interview, he retracted comments he made earlier, in which he said he was ordered by his commanders to open fire at protesters. He said that soon after his defection, he was contacted by opposition figures and groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam and Assad's uncle, Rifaat, offering to help his group financially.
"They were all empty promises," said Harmoush. He said they all stopped contacting him three months after his defection.
Harmoush said he was told by members of the Muslim Brotherhood that they smuggled weapons to armed elements in the central cities of Hama and Homs as well as the northwestern province of Idlib and a Palestinian refugee camp in the coastal city of Latakia.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he dreamed that one day young Syrians will have the same opportunity as young Libyans have for democracy. He made his remarks from Tripoli during his first official visit to Libya since rebels ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
"The best I can do is dedicate my visit here in hopes that everyone in Syria also benefits," he said.
In France, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Syrian opposition members are meeting in Paris with French officials on Thursday and Friday, though he did not identify the figures or elaborate on the meetings.
Syrian opposition members in Istanbul said they were in contact with France but had no scheduled talks with French officials this week.
Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.