Syrian opposition cautiously welcomes UN cease-fire plan

But for more support from the West, the Syrian opposition needs to overcome divisions and squabbling that were on full display at a major Istanbul meeting today.

By , Staff writer

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    Syrian National Council members George Sabra (l.), Samir Nashar (c.), and Wahid Saqr chat as they get ready for a news conference in Istanbul on March 27. A meeting of Syrian opposition groups on Tuesday that aimed to show they can unite to form an alternative to President Bashar al-Assad, was marred when a veteran dissident and Kurdish delegates walked out in protest.
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Syria's divided opposition is cautiously welcoming envoy Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan, accepted by Syria's government today, even as it struggles to find unity after a year of popular revolt and bloodshed.

But it was not immediately clear if the exiled opposition leadership would now agree to sit down for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of "an inclusive, Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," as spelled out in the agreement brokered by Mr. Annan on behalf of the United Nations.

Nearly eight months after the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed to spearhead the political effort to unseat Mr. Assad, it is marred by infighting and roundly criticized for doing little to help back home, where more than 9,000 have been killed in the one-year uprising.

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"The performance of the [SNC] is very weak ... No money has gone inside [Syria], and no weapons and not even medicine," says opposition member Orouba Barakat, who says she sold her inheritance of gold for the cause, and knows of others who sold cars and other belongings to fund the revolt.

"It comes from our own pockets, and our pockets are very limited," she adds. Money has been wasted on poor and inoperative weapons. She says the revolution needs Western support "to get the right weapons," as well as the creation of a buffer zone – as now under consideration by Turkey – "just to breathe."

Biggest Syrian opposition meeting yet

Ms. Barakat was speaking on the sidelines of an Istanbul meeting today that brought together the widest array of Syrian opposition parties to date. The aim was to end infighting, bridge differences, and present a united vision of a democratic, post-Assad future before an international "Friends of Syria" conference convenes here on April 1.

As many as 300 opposition leaders and activists met at a secluded Istanbul hotel, from which journalists were barred entry. The leaders were invited by Turkey and Qatar, which have both strongly challenged the legitimacy of Assad's rule.

The opposition has demanded that the Syrian president step down and end more than 40 years of Assad family rule. Annan's cease-fire plan stops far short of that, but it has the endorsement of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia – a key arms supplier to Assad's regime.

The plan includes an immediate cease-fire, ending heavy weapon use in urban areas, and a daily two-hour "humanitarian pause" to deliver aid and allow for evacuations. Assad's regime today accepted the plan, but similar promises by Assad's regime, to the Arab League and others, have never been met.

"We do continue to say we need to see Bashar al-Assad step down – that will never change. For this, thousands of people have sacrificed, [so no] credible opposition can say otherwise," Bassma Kodmani, a leading member of the SNC, told Al Jazeera English in Istanbul.

"What we are saying here is, if this can open the way for a peaceful transition of power, this is what we would like to see," said Ms. Kodmani. "We have never chosen to militarize this revolution. It was peaceful and it can become peaceful again, immediately [after] the regime stops the killing."

'We don't believe they believe in the revolution'

At today's meeting, the SNC presented a draft unity manifesto that described an inclusive, democratic Syria free of tyranny. But many were still not convinced of the SNC's leadership. A veteran dissident who had been jailed by Assad's walked out in protest, as did some Kurdish members of the opposition.

"They are not strong enough, not effective enough. We don't believe they believe in the revolution – their performance until now works for the Assad regime, not for us," says Barakat, the activist who sold her family gold. She is based in Abu Dhabi and has mostly lived outside Syria since 1978.

The SNC plans to both expand the number of opposition groups under its umbrella this week, and begin a "restructuring" that makes it far more effective, says SNC member Hassan Hachimi, a Canada-based architect. Members needed to be "working in projects," new portfolios should create a government-in-waiting, and perhaps most important, a framework needed to be put in place "that supports the revolution."

"I think everybody is aware" of the criticism from revolutionaries inside about the SNC being out of touch, and "we can't make an excuse of it," says Mr. Hachimi. The main issue has been poor communication, "not that the SNC didn't care."

"Expectations inside Syria were way too much," he adds, of a revolt that has dragged on far longer than the five or six months most predicted. "The Syrian people have shown tremendous courage, this will to sacrifice. We have the will and the patience – the key weapons. We are dealing with the [regime's advantages] one by one. At least we are moving forward."

But not fast enough, by the reckoning of some opposition supporters.

"As someone who has seen a lot of divisions, I'm not optimistic," says a translator who left Syria two months ago, and asked that only his first name, Shyar, be used to protect his family still inside Syria.

"The problem is, the political side of the opposition is far away from the people, [who] have very high expectations," says Shyar. "At first, [the opposition] was for evolution. But when the Syrian regime started to bombard cities and kill civilians, you raise your demands for Assad to step down. The regime is not listening at all. It is blind and deaf."

Syrian state TV today showed Assad visiting the former opposition stronghold of Homs, promising a better future after government forces had bombarded it for weeks in a bid to rout armed rebels.

'If we had got a portion of what Libya got ...'

Finding elusive unity is critical for the opposition, says activist Fadel al-Salim, in order "to remove these excuses from the international community" not to help. "We must prove to the world we are united, and working in the same direction."

From the start, the US and European countries have ruled out a Libya-style military intervention, which last year enabled an eventual rebel victory over Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

They have also been reluctant to provide weapons and money, though reports this week suggest that the US and possibly Turkey are beginning to provide "nonlethal aid," such as communication radios for the loose grouping of rebel forces inside the country, known as the Syrian Free Army.

"If we had got a portion of what Libya got, it would be a different picture today," Hachimi, the architect.

Yet obstacles remain to securing international help on the eve of the second "Friends of Syria" meeting. The first, in Tunisia a month ago, yielded little concrete progress.

"We have hope, but still the pain of birth," says one Syrian at the conference wearing an opposition flag scarf, who recently fled Syria and asked not to be named.

"I think the American and the Russians, everyone sees the situation in Syria. Politics aside, how many children have to die? Old women and men?" asks the Syrian. "The world now understands and will help. We already paid for that in blood."

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