Syrian dissidents convene in Turkey to discuss regime change

Syrian opposition activists meet Wednesday in Turkey to discuss democratic change in their country. In a show of support for the smouldering revolt against the Assad regime, they plan to release a joint declaration before the convention closes Fri.


AFP - Syrian opposition activists convene in Turkey Wednesday for a three-day meeting to discuss democratic change and voice support for a simmering revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"The main theme of the gathering will be 'change': what to do so that Assad's regime goes," Mohamad Dughmosh, the opposition's media officer, told AFP ahead of the meeting.

Between 300 and 400 participants are expected to dine together Tuesday evening before the conference opens formally Wednesday at a five-star hotel in Turkey's Mediterranean resort of Antalya, he said.

The gathering is open to all opposition movements, independent individuals and representatives of all faiths, notably those who took part in the so-called Damascus Declaration -- a reformist platform launched in 2005.

"It's a start. We are here to support the revolution" in Syria, Ammar Qurabi, president of the Egypt-based National Organisation of Human Rights, told AFP.

The opposition is planning to set up a "monitoring mechanism" to assess and help the logistical and judicial needs of anti-regime groups, he said.

"Dialogue between all opposition factions will continue" after the conference, he added.

The gathering is expected to end with a joint declaration Friday.

More than 1,000 people have been killed and 10,000 arrested since the protest movement erupted in Syria on March 15, human rights groups say. Syrian authorities say 143 soldiers, security forces and police have been killed.

The fact that the opposition is gathering in Turkey places Ankara in a delicate situation: Damascus has already complained about an earlier, smaller meeting of Syrian dissident groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, held in Istanbul.

"I think Turkey has been trying to play a role, maybe which in principle has good intentions ... but for us, the Muslim Brotherhood is like the PKK is for Turkey," Syrian Ambassador Nidal Kabalan said in a recent newspaper interview, referring to the armed Kurdish group that has fought Ankara since 1984.

The April meeting had resulted in a joint declaration urging for immediate elections in Syria and an end to the bloody crackdown on protestors.

After decades of enmity, Turkey's ties with Syria, its southern neighbour, have flourished since the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in Ankara in 2002.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who enjoys close personal ties with Assad, has piled up pressure on the Syrian leader to initiate reform but has stopped short of calling for his departure.

Last month, Ankara sent envoys to Damascus in a bid to cajole Assad into reform, offering also expertise for political and economic overhaul.

But Ankara's frustration has grown in recent days as bloody crackdowns on street demonstrations continued.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week that peaceful transition was still possible if Damascus initiates "shock reforms" and stops brutal crackdowns on protesters, warning that "time is running out."

Wary over protracted instability in Syria, Ankara is concerned notably over a possible refugee wave and the future role of Syria's Kurds, who have proven to be a solid support base for the PKK in its 26-year separatist war in southeast Turkey.

"Turkey has used Syria as a gateway to re-enter Arab politics. And if Syria seizes to function as such, Ankara would have to re-define its Arab policy," said Semih Idiz, a foreign policy analyst for Turkey's Milliyet daily.


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