Syrian opposition leaders met in Turkey on Friday in a bid to settle their differences and forge a united front to confront the escalating civil conflict in their homeland.
“We will work towards a unified vision,” said Burhan Ghalioun, who stepped down last month as head of the main opposition group the Syrian National Council, as mounting splits undermined its credibility.
The Istanbul meeting includes almost all opposition factions, while representatives from several Arab and Western countries were present as observers, along with a representative of international Syria envoy Kofi Annan.
The SNC has been criticised for failing to represent Syria’s array of ethnic and religious groups including Arabs, Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Druze and others and for not communicating with the grassroots on the ground.
“We’re here to define a common position,” said Bassma Qodmani, SNC head of foreign relations. “There are not many more points of difference between us now.”
Last Sunday, the SNC appointed Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda as its new leader. He has pledged to embrace all groups to win a broader appeal.
Friday’s only major absentee was the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a large group of Arabs, Kurds and socialists, who said “technical problems” prevented them from attending, other participants said.
But some factions remain suspicious about the prospects for change under the new leadership of the SNC, which is the main umbrella group opposing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists had accused Ghalioun of ignoring the Local Coordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground in Syria, and of giving the Muslim Brotherhood too big a role.
UN officials have said Syria is now embroiled in full-scale civil war, with activists saying more than 14,400 people have been killed since anti-regime protests erupted in March 2011, prompting a bloody crackdown by Assad’s forces.
“I am not optimistic about the result. … The people are fighting Bashar al-Assad because they need a democratic country, freedom, not just to replace Assad with Ghalioun or Sayda,” said Ammar Qurabi, head of the small National Movement for Change.
“The revolution deserves better than this opposition,” Qarubi told reporters.
Among the international observers in Istanbul, France and the United States are represented by their ambassadors to Damascus, who were recalled in November in protest at the violence at the hands of the regime.
Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also sent senior diplomats.
Friday’s meeting came ahead of a planned major conference organised by opposition groups in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League, at a date to be announced.
Toward the end of the day, some participants reported progress in the talks.
“We feel a dynamic is taking hold,” one Syrian opposition participant said on condition of anonymity. “There are always people who need to oppose everything, but there are still things that are moving forward.”
The talks were set to continue into the evening and resume on Saturday.