Syrian opposition forms united front

October 03, 2011

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: Syrian opposition movements announced the formation of a “historic” united front against President Bashar Assad’s government at a meeting in Turkey Sunday.

At home, meanwhile, a son of Syria’s grand mufti was killed when his car came under attack from gunmen, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.

Meanwhile, rights activists said that Syrian troops have taken control of the central city of Rastan after sending in 250 tanks to quell clashes between the army and deserters.

The announcement of the Syrian National Council at a news conference in Istanbul appeared to be the most serious step yet to unify a deeply fragmented opposition. It follows five days of intense battles between the Syrian military and army defectors in the country’s central region that raised the specter of all-out armed conflict.

Prominent Syrian opposition figure Bourhan Ghalioun, who read out the founding statement of the SNC at a news conference in Istanbul, accused the Syria of fomenting sectarian strife to maintain its grip on power.

“I think that this [Assad] regime has completely lost the world’s trust,” he said. “The world is waiting for a united Syrian [opposition] that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognize it,” he added.

“The council denounces the [regime’s] policy of sectarian incitement … which threatens national unity and is pushing the country to the brink of civil war,” he said.

Syria’s volatile sectarian divide means that an armed conflict could rapidly escalate in scale and brutality. The Baath Party leadership is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

The opposition movement has until now focused on peaceful demonstrations, although recently some protesters have been reported to have taken up arms to defend themselves against military attacks. Army defectors have also been fighting government troops.

In forming a national council, the Syrians are following in the footsteps of Libyan rebels, who formed a National Transitional Council during the uprising that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Syrian opposition consists of a variety of groups with differing ideologies, including Islamists and secularists, and there have been many meetings of dissidents claiming to represent Syria’s popular uprising since it erupted seven months ago. But the new council is the broadest umbrella movement of revolutionary forces formed so far.

A group of Syrian activists had declared the preliminary formation of the council last month, but its structure, goals and a founding statement signed by major opposition factions, had not been announced until this conference.

The SNC announced in Istanbul appears to have received the recognition of the largest Syrian opposition factions.

Members said it includes representatives from the Damascus Declaration grouping, a pro-democracy network based in the capital, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political party banned in the country, various Kurdish factions, and the grassroots Local Coordination Committees which have led protests across the country, as well as other independent and tribal figures.\

Conference spokesman Ghalioun said a key benefit of the council to the opposition would be to provide a single body with which other countries could coordinate. He urged Syrians everywhere to support it and said it would be a vehicle for democratic change.

The council’s statement said it categorically rejects any foreign intervention or military operations to bring down Assad’s government but called on the international community to “protect the Syrian people” from “the declared war and massacres being committed against them by the regime.”

It said that protesters should continue to use “peaceful means” to topple the Syrian leader.

The organizers have not named a leader for the national council, but appeared to give a leading role to Ghalioun, a popular opposition figure who is also a scholar of contemporary oriental studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In ground developments Sunday, the government said it retook control of the rebellious central town of Rastan after hunting down “armed terrorists” holed up inside. The fighting there highlighted the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.

Syrian activists say the fighting in Rastan had pitted the Syrian military against hundreds of army defectors who sided with anti-Assad protesters. It was among the worst clashes in the 6-month-old uprising against Assad.

In a separate incident, the 21-year-old son of Syria’s top Sunni Muslim cleric was wounded by gunmen, the state-run SANA news agency reported.

Pro-government Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun’s son Saria was attacked in the Saraqeb region of the restive northern Idlib province as he left the university where he studies, the agency reported. He suffered wounds to his chest and kidney and was being operated upon.

Mufti Hassoun is considered to be a close supporter of President Bashar Assad’s government, and has echoed its claims that the unrest in Syria is the result of a foreign conspiracy.

SANA said Hassoun had died of wounds sustained during an ambush on his car, while traveling between Idlib and Aleppo.

Source: The Daily Star.


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