ISTANBUL Syria's fractious opposition groups begin reconciliation talks in Istanbul on Tuesday aimed at demonstrating they can provide an effective alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which holds the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland suffers under Assad's brutal repression of a year-old uprising.
About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts call an "open house" meeting on Tuesday.
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, has sought support for the reconciliation meeting to end with a "national oath", committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek national reconciliation once Assad is removed.
"Based on the national responsibility on all the political powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that the new state will be based upon," a draft declaration said. It said the new Syria will be "civic, democratic and totally free", with a transitional government to organise a ballot to elect a founding assembly to draft a new constitution.
"The Syrian people are proud of their cultural and religious diversity. Everyone will contribute in building the future," it said.
SOME DISSIDENTS WITHDRAW
A few weeks ago, a handful of leading dissidents withdrew from the SNC, dismayed both by its leadership and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which draws support from Syria's Sunni majority.
This disunity has fed fears that Syria's agony won't end if Assad is pushed out, leaving governments which would otherwise be glad to see his downfall hesitant over how to engineer an endgame without an acceptable alternative in place.
Turkey hosts a meeting of foreign ministers from "Friends of Syria", grouping mainly Arab and Western governments, on April 1, with the hope of agreeing measures that could persuade Assad to call off his security forces, permit inflows of humanitarian aid, and allow a political transition. Whether they are in the SNC or not, main opposition figures will also attend, a Turkish official told reporters on Monday.
The official also stressed that his government's role in the opposition gathering was purely to facilitate the meeting, though it urged unity.
"We have been talking to almost every figure in the SNC," the Turkish official said. "They have to take everybody on board to show they are representing every walk of Syrian society."
Ghalioun, a Paris-based secular professor of politics, was chosen in October as a consensus candidate to hold the presidency for an initial three months, but he has held onto the position despite strong criticism of his leadership.
His attempt in December to draft an accord between the SNC, a group containing a large number of exiled dissidents, and the National Coordination Body, a centrist bloc inside Syria, was rejected by the SNC executive council.
Liberals and other Islamists are unhappy with the influence the Muslim Brotherhood wields in the SNC, while ethnic Kurdish leaders have shunned the group. Syrian Kurds were attending the reconciliation talks as were several of the dissidents who had earlier quit the SNC to form a rival Syrian Patriotic Front.
The difficulties coming together were unsurprising for a country where political opposition has been throttled by 42 years of Assad family rule.
"This is a learning process in the politics of opposition," the Turkish official said.
(Created by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Michael Roddy)