Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Rifts split Syria's opposition

Many Syrian opposition groups met in Egypt but activists had trouble coming to an agreement (AP)

Syrian opposition groups have struggled to form a united leadership at a meeting that exposed vast disagreements that have prevented them from effectively leading the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

A conference in Cairo hosted by the Arab League ended with an agreement on two documents, both vague. One provides a general outline to guide the opposition through a transitional period, while the other lays out the fundamental principles envisaged for a post-Assad Syria.

The delegates agreed in general terms on support for the Free Syrian Army, the dissolution of the ruling Baath Party and the exclusion of Assad or other senior regime figures from a place in the transition. But they failed to reach an agreement on forming a unified body to represent the opposition.

Arguments were rife among the 250 participants over key questions, including whether to ask for foreign military intervention to halt the violence and what role religion would play in a post-Assad Syria.

"It's very dangerous at this point," said Abdel-Aziz al-Khayyar, who spent 14 years in Syrian prisons and is now part of the Syrian National Co-ordination Body. "If we fail to unify as the opposition it is the greatest gift to the regime."

The two largest opposition groups at the meeting distrust each other. Members of the Syrian National Council accused the Syrian National Co-ordination Body, known as the NCB, of being too close to the regime. For its part, the NCB accuses the SNC of being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and Western powers.

Participants debated late into Tuesday night and at one stage, it appeared the efforts might collapse - not least when Kurdish activists walked out over how the draft charter spoke of their minority.

One attendee broke down in tears outside the meeting room. "Thousands of martyrs and they can't unite? We are sitting here in hotels and they are down there dying," said Thaer Al-Hajy, part of a group called the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union.

One independent activist said all agreed that Assad must go, but that there are many different views of what follows.

"These are sensitive issues that go back to people's ideologies," said Ziad Hassan, 28. "It could take two years, not two days, to get over our differences."

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