Syria’s fractured opposition elected a National Salvation Council to present a united challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule as he intensified a military campaign to crush an uprising. The opposition meeting in Istanbul took place on Saturday, a day after the biggest demonstrations so far in Syria’s four-month uprising, during which at least 32 civilians were killed, including 23 in the capital Damascus.
“We shall work towards reaching out toward other opposition groups to lead the country toward the democratic vision we have,” opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said, after the one-day meeting.
Despite disputes over whether to form a government-in-waiting or wait to see how the uprising unfolds, the meeting concluded with the election of a 25-member National Salvation Council composed of Islamists, liberals and independents. Of the about 350 people who attended the opposition congress, many were Syrian exiles who had left the country years earlier.
The meeting had hoped to join members of the opposition inside Syria via a video link to a conference in Damascus, but that was called off after Syrian security forces targeted the venue as part of Friday’s crackdown in the capital. The council was scheduled to meet yesterday to appoint an 11-member committee.
Syrian forces killed one protester and wounded five on Saturday when they opened fire at demonstrators in the eastern border town of Albu Kamal near Iraq’s Sunni heartland. The official state news agency said “armed terrorist groups” killed three security personnel on Saturday in Albu Kamal.
Human rights campaigners said Syrian forces killed at least three other civilians on Saturday when they fired at funerals for protesters killed the day before.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, visiting Turkey, said Assad’s repression was “troubling.”
“The brutality has to stop,” she said in a televised interview with a group of young Turkish people at an Istanbul coffee shop on Saturday.
At a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Clinton said: “Now Syria’s future is up to the Syrian people, but of course the efforts by the opposition to come together to organize and to articulate an agenda are an important part of political reform.”
“Assad said he was going to have multiparty groups in parliament ... I hope Syria has opposition parties and that Syria has opposition parties that raise their voice,” Davutoglu said.
Human rights campaigners say more than 12,000 Syrians have been arrested during the uprising. Witnesses said militiamen loyal to Assad attacked with sticks 28 actors and writers on Saturday as they left the Palace of Justice in Damascus, where a judge freed them after their arrest this week for staging a demonstration demanding political freedoms.
Activists said discontent is growing within the mostly Sunni rank and file of the army as the crackdown orchestrated by Assad from Syria’s minority Alawite sect continues.
An exiled dissident at the Istanbul meeting called on Syrians to wage a campaign of civil disobedience to try to force Assad from power.
“I’m for anything that unifies the Syrian people and helps our people inside, and unifies our ranks in confronting this illegitimate repressive regime that has usurped power and human rights,” opposition figure Wael al Hafez said at the meeting.
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