Last Updated: Tue Jul 03, 2012 12:43 pm (KSA) 09:43 am (GMT)

Syria opposition group pulls out of Cairo meet; post-Assad ‘roadmap’ underway

Syrian children joined protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in al-Kasten, near Idlib. On placard read: My martyr brothers, wait for me, I am coming. (Reuters)
Syrian children joined protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in al-Kasten, near Idlib. On placard read: My martyr brothers, wait for me, I am coming. (Reuters)

Syria’s opposition General Revolution Commission withdrew from the meetings of the country’s opposition groups that kicked off in Cairo on Monday, Al Arabiya reported.

“The most important thing now is to continue in our effort to boost the Syrian revolutionary powers, especially the Free Syrian Army (FSA),” the opposition group said in a statement.

The statement stressed that the Commission does not want to get into political arguments which “mess with the destiny of the Syrian people and their great revolution.”

Bassem Jaara, the Commission spokesman in Europe, said that the withdrawal from the Cairo meeting was in collaboration with the FSA, according to Al Arabiya.

Meanwhile, Syrian National Council (SNC) chief Abdul Basset Syda earlier revealed to Al Arabiya that a new document which he described as a “road map” was being prepared, to set the rules for the transitional period that would follow the fall of President Bashat al-Assad. “The document will aid the Syrians in overcoming the tough transitional period,” he said.

Violent crackdown on protesters resumed across Syria on Monday. As many as 73 people have been killed by the fire if Syrian forces, mostly in Hama, Homs, Damascus suburbs and Deir Ezzor, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local Coordination Committees.

One of the gravest security challenges

The stakes are high for calming the crisis in Syria, which NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday called “one of the gravest security challenges the world faces today,” The Associated Press reported.

But more than one year into the Syrian revolt, the opposition is still hobbled by the infighting and fractiousness that have prevented the movement from gaining the kind of political traction it needs to present a credible alternative to Assad.

“There is an opportunity before the conference of Syrian opposition today that must be seized, and I say and repeat that this opportunity must not be wasted under any circumstance,” Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told nearly 250 members of the Syrian opposition at the opening of the two-day conference in Cairo.

“The sacrifices of the Syrian people are bigger than us and more valuable than any narrow differences or factional disputes,” he said.

Nasser al-Qidwa, deputy to U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, said that unity of purpose and vision was “not an option, but a necessity if the opposition wants to bolster its popular support and trust and increase international support.”

Syrian divisions

The divisions are tied to issues at the heart of the revolution: Whether to seek dialogue with the regime, whether outside military intervention is needed and what ideology should guide a post-Assad Syria.

Regime opponents inside and outside Syria are a diverse group, representing the country’s ideological, sectarian and generational divide. They include dissidents who spent years in prison, tech-savvy activists in their 20s, former Marxists and Islamists.

Communication between those abroad and those in the country is extremely difficult. Political activists in Syria are routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Many are in hiding, communicating only through Skype using fake names, and the country is largely sealed off to exiled dissidents and foreign journalists.

The Cairo conference brought together various opposition groups -- including the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria -- to try to agree on a united front to represent them, as well as to work out a transition plan for how to end to the conflict.

However, the main rebel group fighting Syrian government forces on the ground, the Free Syrian Army, was not represented at the talks. Faiz Amru, a member of the Joint Military Command, which is affiliated with the FSA, said the Cairo meeting was purely political, so rebels were not invited.

Meaningful transition

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. (Reuters)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his hope that the Cairo meeting could contribute to the efforts of the U.N. special envoy and international community “to pave the way toward a meaningful transition in Syria.”

“It is important that the Syrian opposition increase its cohesion and designate effective representative interlocutors,” said a statement released by Ban’s spokesperson.

Besides the conference in Cairo, opposition members also plan to meet Russian officials later this month, a Russian news agency reported. But the Moscow talks are significant because the Kremlin is Syria’s most important ally, protector and supplier of arms.

Diplomatic hopes have rested on persuading Russia to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

Moscow’s determination to preserve its last remaining ally in the Middle East has blocked efforts by the U.S. and other Western powers to force Assad out.

World powers at a conference in Geneva on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered plan calling for the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers in Syria. But at Russia’s insistence, the compromise left the door open to Assad being part of the interim administration.

Some Syrian opposition groups have rejected the plan, calling it ambiguous and a waste of time and vowing not to negotiate with Assad or members of his “murderous” regime.

However, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria said Monday that the plan is the best way to ensure a political transition that avoids a full collapse of the Syrian state.

Fighting escalates

The U.S. backed away from insisting that the plan should explicitly call for Assad to have no role in a new Syrian government, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its longtime ally to end the regime's violent crackdown.

The conflict has killed more than 15,000 people since the revolt began in March 2011, according to opposition estimates. The U.N. put the figure at 10,000 people. The fighting has grown increasingly militarized in recent months, with rebel forces launching attacks and ambushes on regime targets.

Thousands of soldiers, most of them low-level conscripts, have deserted and joined the rebels.

As the conflict drags on, concerns are mounting that the violence will spiral outside the country’s borders. Tensions already are running high between Damascus and Ankara after Syria shot down a Turkish military plane on June 22.

Syria said the jet violated its airspace, but Turkey says the aircraft was shot down over international waters.

Turkey responded by setting up anti-aircraft guns along the frontier and said Monday it dispatched fighter jets to its border after Syrian helicopters flew too close to the frontier for a second day on Sunday.

In Brussels on Monday, Rasmussen said the Syrian regime “has lost all humanity and all legitimacy.” But there is little appetite for the type of military intervention that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, in part because there is no real opposition to get behind.

The international community is also hesitant to get involved in another country in turmoil.

“Every member of the international community should use its influence and spare no effort to bring an end to the bloodshed and move Syria forward,” he said. “This conflict has already gone on for too long. It has cost too many lives, and put the stability of the whole region at risk.”

Jordan to open refugee camp for Syrians

Meanwhile, Jordan and the U.N. are currently in talks over the opening of an emergency refugee camp, aid officials say, as Syrians flood into the country in record numbers, The Jordan times reported on Monday.

The proposed camp, set to be erected near the border cities of Ramtha and Mafraq, would serve as temporary housing for vulnerable Syrians, according to Harper.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), relief agencies and government officials are studying the opening of an overflow camp in the northern border region in order to meet a refugee influx that has reached 400 people per day, including a record 500 on Sunday evening alone.

“We have the resources and manpower in place, but we just simply don’t have the facilities to house all these new arrivals,” Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative in Jordan, was quoted as saying by The Jordan Times.

The spike in new arrivals, according to security officials, has led to “severe overcrowding” in transit facilities, guarded housing complexes where new arrivals undergo security background checks, with the recently established transit center in King Abdullah II Park reaching full capacity within its first week.

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