Syrian opposition leaders were meeting in Turkey on Friday in a bid to settle their differences and forge a united front to confront the escalating conflict in their homeland.
“We will work towards a unified vision,” Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of the main opposition group the Syrian National Council, told AFP shortly before the two-day gathering kicked off in Istanbul.
The meeting brings together various opposition factions including a Kurdish group and representatives from several Arab and Western countries which are also in Istanbul to observe the proceedings.
“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.”
France is represented by its ambassador to Damascus, who was recalled in November to protest the regime violence. The United States, Germany, Italy and Turkey also sent senior diplomats.
Friday’s meeting comes ahead of a planned major conference organized by opposition groups in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League, at a date to be announced.
The newly-elected head of the SNC, Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda, said as he took office last Sunday that his priority was to unify the opposition.
The Syrian revolution council on Friday reported at least 19 people killed by Assad regime forces across the country. Opposition activists have called for peaceful protests nationwide.
Monitors say more than 14,400 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in March 2011, prompting a bloody crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In Turkey where the group is meeting, the number of registered Syrian refugees has topped 30,000, a Turkish foreign ministry official said on Friday.
“Four hundred more Syrians crossed into Turkey on Thursday, bringing the total number to 30,800,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous.
The refugees are accommodated in Turkish Red Crescent camps in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Kilis along the Syrian border.
The influx of refugees comes as violence continues in Syria, particularly in northwestern villages close to the border.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters on Friday that “Unfortunately the (current) situation is the worst in Syria,” adding that the peace plan proposed by international mediator Kofi Annan appeared to have been sidelined by the regime.
Turkey’s government has repeatedly accused Damascus of winning time by using Annan’s peace plan as a pretext.
World powers are groping to find a way to end the bloodshed in Syria with the toll growing daily despite the ceasefire that should have gone into effect from April 12, and there are reports of children being used as human shields.
Turkey, once a strong ally of Syria, broke with Damascus after Assad’s regime began cracking down on dissent in March last year.
Doctors among the refugees
Among the 30000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, doctors who have escaped the bloodshed but remain determined to treat their compatriots.
When the Syrian army rolled into his hometown to crush rebellion there, Omar, an orthopedic surgeon, knew it was only a matter of time before his field hospital was discovered by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
For four days he hid inside the makeshift clinic in the northern town of Idlib, continuing to treat the sick and wounded along with the other staff, but as the soldiers drew closer Omar made his escape to Turkey.
“It was not a choice to come here. I was forced. The army came into Idlib. We kept working until they got too close. We worked until the last minute,” said Omar, 28, who did not give his full name because his relatives are still inside Syria.
From a small, windowless basement apartment in Turkey’s southern Hatay province a few hundred meters from the border, Omar now gathers drugs and medical supplies from all over Turkey to be smuggled to colleagues inside Syria.
The slick operation, set up by a union of expatriate Syrian doctors and involving some 60 smugglers, is only one of a large network of informal supply chains along the Syrian border that serve as a lifeline to those caught up in the violence.
“They need everything. All their supplies have been destroyed. Assad’s army has destroyed four of our stores and four field hospitals. This is only in our area. They are destroying many others elsewhere,” said Omar.
Donations come mainly from Syrian doctors living in Gulf Arab countries or in Europe, and the amounts vary significantly. Omar said they received a quarter of a million dollars one month but then only $50,000 the next and last month they got $30,000.
The money buys drugs and medical equipment ranging from antibiotics to bandages and from syringes to large anesthetic machines.
The supplies are then packaged and smuggled across by foot, donkey or motorcycle depending on where they are headed.
Specialist drugs and medical equipment is sourced from inside Turkey, often at a discount. One company in Ankara supplied some medical equipment free of charge when it found out where it was going, said Omar.
“If we have the money, then we can get whatever we want. The Turkish government has helped us a lot. They do not try to restrict our work. We are all illegal here. They have rules here but they are helping us. We appreciate that,” said Omar.
Western nations say they are supporting the opposition with non-lethal aid. But for many rebel Syrians like Omar the foreign help is too little, too late.
“We wanted the world to help us but they do nothing. This is creating a bad feeling among Syrians. This just gives Assad more time to kill us. They just talk. No medical support, no humanitarian support, just talking,” said Omar.
“It has been more than a year now. We don’t want anything. We are just thinking about ourselves now. I think they want Assad to stay.”
Omar is interrupted once more as a group of men pour into the apartment and begin lifting boxes of medicine onto a tractor waiting to take the next batch of supplies to the border.
“I’m sorry,” said Omar, “I have to go.”