Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – Syria’s splintered opposition yesterday reached an agreement to unite under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council [SNC], in an effort to show the world that they are a genuine alternative to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Around 300 members of the Syrian opposition, representing almost all Syrian opposition parties at home and abroad, met in Istanbul yesterday to try and reach and agreement on forming a united front to confront the “illegitimate” al-Assad regime.
A statement issued following the end of a two-day meeting revealed that “the conference decided that the SNC is the formal interlocutor and formal representative of the Syrian people”. The meeting also “agreed upon a statement…pledging for a restructuring of the SNC and decided to form a preparatory commission to write down a new law for the SNC.”
However not all members of the Syrian opposition signed this agreement, and the Syrian opposition meeting – in spite of its eventual outcome – was not a roaring success, as a number of Syrian opposition members walked out. A source who attended this closed-door meeting informed Asharq Al-Awsat that there were “question marks” over these withdrawals, adding that some of the excuses and pretexts used to justify them were “strange”. The source revealed that octogenarian Syrian opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh withdrew from the meeting after speeches given by Qatari and Turkish representatives, with the excuse that he was supposed to chair this meeting, citing the “age factor”. The source added that representative of the Kurdish National Council withdrew because they did not support the text of this agreement including references to the statement that “Syria is made up of different nationalities.” In addition to this, the National Co-ordination Committee [NCC] refused to attend the meeting.
During the meeting, Turkey expressed its support of the SNC, stressing that it “represents the primary force of the [Syrian] opposition.” A Turkish Foreign Ministry source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the SNC must not shoulder “more than it can bear” adding “they have experienced more than 40 years of injustice and oppression, so they cannot begin working together as a unified front from the first moment”. The Turkish source asserted that what had been achieved during this meeting “deserves admiration and praise”. The Turkish Foreign Ministry source also hinted that Ankara may be willing to recognize the SNC as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
For his part, a Turkish government official, speaking to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper yesterday on the condition of anonymity, stressed that “if they agree on a document that puts forth a constitutional vision that is endorsed by everybody ahead of the meeting of the Friends of Syria that will take place in Istanbul on 1 April, then the SNC [could be recognized] as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
He also called on the FSA to stop operating as if it were an independent “gang-like” group but instead pledge its loyalty to the SNC. He added “the opposition has yet to outline the parameters of a new regime that would replace the rule of Bashar al-Assad” adding that consensus on this “national contract” could prove to be a “turning point” in the Syrian crisis.
The Turkish official also asserted that “stability in Syria depends on a democratic constitution that is in conformity with the multicultural fabric of Syria and enables different religious beliefs and ethnic groups to coexist under a constitutional guarantee.”
A western diplomatic source who attended the conference informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian opposition had made a real “achievement”, despite “some undesirable signs.” The diplomatic source stressed that the Syrian opposition deserves admiration, appreciation and support to help them to extricate themselves from “the dark tunnel that the regime has placed them in”.
This summit, which took place behind closed doors in Istanbul, saw more than 300 members of the Syrian opposition meeting and agreeing to name the SNC as their representative, calling on the al-Assad regime to withdraw its tanks from the street to demonstrate it is serious about peace. Turkish Foreign Ministry representative Halit Celik gave an official speech during the meeting in which he confirmed that Ankara “will not leave the Syrian people to their fate” adding that the only option is the departure of the al-Assad regime, whilst also expressing Turkey’s support for the SNC as a platform for different orientations of the Syrian opposition.
As for Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khalid Al-Attiyah, he had stressed that “what is required from this meeting is not the unification of the [Syrian] opposition, but rather reaching a common vision.”
For his part, senior Syrian opposition figure Saleh al-Maleh, who was imprisoned during the Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad era, withdrew from the summit, saying that the SNC is monopolizing the scene and not allowing other activists to have their say.
Al-Maleh told Asharq Al-Awsat that his withdrawal came after he entered the summit to find that “there was no chair for me to sit at”. He stressed that “relying on the grass-root [opposition] is the key to success” adding that “this talk that no voice is louder than the sound of battle is being used by the SNC as an excuse to breach principles in the same manner as it was used by the [al-Assad] regime over the past 40 years.”
Al-Maleh said that “it is true that time is short, but does this mean that we must begin with a mistake?”
In addition to al-Maleh, Syrian opposition figure Walid al-Bani also withdrew from the meeting, claiming that he had not been consulted. The Kurdish National Council also walked out due to the absence of any reference to a settlement for Kurdish Syrians. They had called for constitutional recognition of the Kurdish people, and guarantees for a democratic and just solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria, based on international covenants and agreements and within the framework of the United Nations.
After discussions and deliberation, the Syrian opposition announced that they had adopted the document put forward by the SNC, whilst opponents recorded their opposition to the “SNC approach”.
According to this document, the new Syrian state will be based on the basic principle that “Syria is a civil, democratic, pluralistic, independent and sovereign state; a state that will determine its own future solely according to the will of the Syrian people.” The document also announced the Syrian opposition’s commitment to a transitional stage “immediately following the collapse of the current illegitimate regime, to carry out free and fair elections that will result in the establishment of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, which will include the principles put forward in this contract.”