BRUSSELS, (Reuters) – Exiled Syrian opposition leaders including a former vice-president and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood said on Friday they were forming a united front to replace President Bashar al-Assad with democracy.
Former Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who broke with Assad last year after serving under his late father Hafez al-Assad, told Reuters he held talks with nationalists, liberals, Islamists, Kurds and communists and would announce a common programme for a transition to democracy on Friday.
“The Syrian people are fed up with the current situation and we expect that a lot of new circumstances will lead to the uprising of the Syrian people,” he said in an interview.
Khaddam forecast “regime change” in Damascus this year, within a few months, because he said Assad was making many mistakes and “digging himself into a hole” and the economic and social situation was becoming more intolerable.
He said he expected a U.N. investigation in to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri last year to point a finger of accusation directly at the Syrian president, which could trigger the fall of the leadership.
A group of 17 exiled politicians — all men — negotiated until late in the night in a smoke-filled room in a Brussels hotel on a joint declaration aimed as a roadmap for an uprising.
“This is the first time in history that all the opposition movements inside and outside Syria have sat down at one table and agreed on a common plan,” Husam al-Dairi, Washington-based leader of the Syrian Liberal National Democratic Party, said. He said the coalition of 25 opposition personalities and movements, including London-based Muslim Brotherhood secretary-general Bayanouni would elect a leader and announce its programme on Friday.
Khaddam, who lives in France, said he chose to stage the meeting in Belgium because he is bound by French law to refrain from making statements against foreign governments as a condition of political asylum.
He said he had many supporters within the ruling Baath Party and the army.
“They will be active partners in the regime change and there will be no massacre,” Khaddam said.
Pressure on Assad and his family has mounted since the U.N. probe into Hariri’s murder implicated top Syrian officers and asked to question senior officials.
But despite mass demonstrations in neighbouring Lebanon which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after Hariri’s death, there has been little sign of popular protest inside tightly controlled Syria.
Assad and his vice-president have agreed for the first time to talk to the U.N. inquiry, the world body said this week.
Bayanouni told Reuters the opposition had agreed to a civil constitution and his movement, which considered itself moderate and close to Turkey’s ruling AK Party, would not seek to impose Islamic Sharia law on Syria.
People were turning to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world wherever they had a democratic choice becuase of the failure of secularists and Arab nationalists in power, he said.
“We believe in the current situation in the Islamic world, the Islamic tide is a wide phenomenon and if there are free elections, this current will take its place,” he said.
The United States and France have been in the lead in putting international pressure on Syria over the Hariri case. But some diplomats say Washington and Paris may be reluctant to risk instability in Damascus at a time of worsening civil strife in neighbouring Iraq and after the victory of the Hamas Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories.
Asked why he believed Syria was ripe for an uprising, Bayanouni said: “We believe this regime has now fulfilled all the reasons to collapse. It has no public base. It is isolated internally and it is making foreign policy mistakes that are isolating it internationally.”