As international pressure on Syria rises, the country's historically quarrelsome and divided opposition groups have issued a broad call for democratic change in the form of a statement that is being called the "Damascus declaration."
The Damascus declaration, which was issued on Oct. 16, calls for an end to Syria's emergency laws and other forms of political repression, and for a national conference on democratic change.
The statement comes at a particularly tense time for Syria, which is being pressed by the US and other Western nations to stop foreign fighters from crossing its eastern border into Iraq and to end its suspected interference in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs.
The statement was published just days before the anticipated release this week of a report by Detlev Mehlis, a UN investigator, on the Feb. 14 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syrian officials have been interviewed recently by UN investigators, and the possibility that the report may reveal a Syrian role in the Hariri killing has been causing intense anxiety in political circles here. Syrian President Bashar Assad is also perceived to be strengthening his hold on power in a series of crackdowns, further adding to the sense of gloom that has gripped Damascus.
Marwan Kabalan, a Damascus University political scientist, said the declaration was a response to these pressures, an effort on the part of Syrian opposition groups to put aside their differences and to demonstrate to the world that a coherent alternative to the Assad regime is emerging inside Syria.
"This is a huge development for the opposition within Syria," Kabalan said. "For the first time we're seeing a blueprint for reconstituting Syria's political process."
The announcement was backed by an unusually diverse collection of politicians and activists, including human rights campaigners, Communists, Kurdish nationalists, overseas Syrian exiles, the imprisoned Parliament member Riad Seif and the London-based Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned in Syria for more than two decades but is believed to enjoy continuing popular support.
Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian rights lawyer, said the declaration demonstrated that there was a democratic alternative to the Baathists, the nationalist and nominally socialist party that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
"It is high time to publish this statement. Syria really needs all the world to know that there is a replacement for Assad that is democratic and liberal," Bunni said.