Arabs, Turkey push Syrian opposition to unite
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The Arab League and Turkey are pressing the Syrian opposition to unite before Western and Arab foreign minister meet in Istanbul next week to back the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, opposition sources said on Sunday.
Qatar, the rotating chairman of the Arab League, and Turkey, a Muslim member of NATO bordering Syria, asked Assad's divided opponents to gather in Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday ahead of the "Friends of Syria" meeting in the same city on April 1.
The Qatari-Turkish invitation said the aim was to discuss visions for a free and democratic Syria and agree on a set of shared principles for a peaceful political transition, unifying around the Syrian National Council (SNC).
Some liberals and independent Islamists opposed to a growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood have quit the SNC, an umbrella organisation set up last year, raising doubts about whether opposition to Assad is enough to weld a common front.
"We expect the SNC to be recognized as the only legitimate representative of Syria," Muslim Brotherhood official Faruq Tayfur told a news conference in Istanbul.
Tayfur also declared support for extending Burhan Ghalioun's leadership of the SNC. Ghalioun, a Paris-based secular professor of politics, has run into heavy criticism since his appointment.
George Sabra is the main contender to replace Ghalioun when his three-month term expires. Sabra is an ally of Riad al-Turk, Syria's leading dissident. Turk is operating underground inside Syria and wields some moral authority over the opposition.
"BITING THE BULLET"
A senior dissident, who declined to be named, said he had accepted the Qatari-Turkish invitation despite his reservations about the SNC leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"I am biting the bullet because we all want the 'Friends of Syria' meeting to succeed," he said. "International powers want a serious assurance that the opposition will not let Syria descend into chaos. The SNC is having its arm twisted to at least come up with a coherent vision for the post-Assad period."
Katrine al-Talli, a human rights lawyer who was jailed during the uprising, was one of five prominent SNC members who quit the SNC last month to form a rival Syrian Patriotic Front.
Talli said she would also attend the Istanbul meeting and that one or two of her colleagues would also participate.
The National Coordination Committee, a group of centrist politicians also hit by defections, said it will not attend.
Foreign powers fear that Syria, formed of a Sunni Muslim majority and several religious and ethnic minorities, could descend into conflict unless opposition factions work together.
Western countries, especially the United States, have demanded that the opposition commit to protecting minorities and maintaining civic peace in any post-Assad era.
There has been a rise in sectarian killings between Sunnis and Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs. A growing number of armed Syrian rebels are acting outside any central command.
An SNC source said that in weekend discussions, Ghalioun had proposed that a national oath be adopted on Tuesday whereby the entire opposition would promise to build a democratic state "without any intention for revenge" and to begin national reconciliation once Assad falls.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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