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Middle east

Syrian activists in Turkey push for regime change

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-06-01

Gathered in the southern Turkish city of Antalya Wednesday, Syrian opposition activists dismissed President Bashar al-Assad’s amnesty decree and vowed to push for a power transition in the country.

Syrian opposition groups meeting in the southern Turkish coastal city of Antalya Wednesday dismissed Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad’s amnesty for political prisoners as "too little, too late" and pressed for the strongman’s departure.

More than 300 Syrian dissidents gathered for a three-day conference titled “Conference for Change in Syria” in the Mediterranean resort city to discuss regime change and to draw up a "roadmap" of a peaceful and democratic transition in Syria.

The conference came a day after Syrian state-run media announced that, "President Assad has by decree issued an amnesty on all [political] crimes committed before May 31, 2011."

The amnesty includes all political prisoners from all political movements, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the report said.

‘Assad himself should be granted amnesty’

But at the Antalya conference, Assad’s offer was dismissed by the Muslim Brotherhood. “This announcement is too little too late... It is Assad himself who should be granted amnesty because he killed his people. He should simply leave," Melhem al-Durubi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood delegation to Antalya, told AFP.

Portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad

The conference opened Wednesday with the Syrian national anthem and a minute of silence for "the martyrs" killed in bloody crackdowns on street protests that have gripped Syria since March.

The current uprisings were sparked by anti-regime demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa two months ago and have since spread across the nation. According to human rights organisations, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested in the deadly repressions that have sparked worldwide condemnations.

Diversity in delegate ranks

Reporting from the conference, FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer said the delegates hailed from a diverse collection of Syrian opposition groups. “You have secularists, you have Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood is strongly represented here. You have Kurds – about 60 of them – and you also have Arab tribesmen walking around in their traditional dress…and there is a Christian delegation as well,” said Mortimer.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Anas Abdah of Damascus Declaration, a London-based opposition umbrella group, said the conference delegates were not strictly political activists. "There are young activists, number one, we have people from inside Syria and also outside Syria. Secondly, the Syrian businessmen - for the first time, we have more and more Syrian businessmen participating and supporting the work of the revolution of the Syrian opposition. And third, the tribal leaders. The tribal leaders are participating in big numbers,” said Abdah.

A multiethnic, multi-religious Middle Eastern nation, Syria has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970 when the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power. The Assads are Alawites, a Shi'ite sub-group that comprises around 12 percent of the population.

Turkey warily eyes its southern neighbour

The choice of Turkey as a venue for this week’s conference, according to Mortimer, reflects the respect Turkey has earned in the Arab world.

“One of the conference organisers told me that they didn’t want to hold it in France or England, where there are lots of Syrian exiles, for fear that the Syrians inside would suggest that the conference was under Western manipulation and it would be easy for the Assad regime to label a conference in France or London as being steered by the West,” said France 24's Mortimer.

An economic giant and the only NATO member in the Muslim world, Turkey shares a 550-mile border with Syria and is concerned that a worsening situation next door could spark a refugee crisis or a political agitation in the midst of the Kurdish community, which straddles the Turkey-Syria border.

While the two countries have historically had a fraught relationship - with Turkey almost declaring war on Syria in 1998 - relations between Damascus and Ankara have improved over the past few years.

The Arab Spring has posed a foreign policy challenge to Turkey, one that it is still navigating its way through.

Mortimer noted that the Turkish government is not the official host of the Syrian opposition conference in Antalya. “Turkey is staying strictly neutral,” said Mortimer. “On the other hand, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has made it quite clear that he has been irritated by President Assad’s failure to reform Syria since the uprising started…I think Turkey would also like to be seen on the side of democracy and reform in the Arab world and this conference does enhance that image.”

The conference is expected to end Friday with a joint statement by the delegates.

Date created : 2011-06-01

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