Residents of rural area in northern Lebanon say Syrian forces destroying farm building, clashing with Syrian rebels who fled country; opposition forces in Istanbul seek to show alternative to Assad.
Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon on Tuesday, destroying farm buildings and clashing with Syrian rebels who had taken refuge there, residents said.
“More than 35 Syrian soldiers came across the border and started to destroy houses,” said Abu Ahmed, 63, a resident of the rural mountain area of al-Qaa.
Another resident said that the soldiers, some traveling in armored personnel vehicles, fired rocket-propelled grenades and exchanged heavy machine-gun fire with rebels.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, Syria’s fractious opposition groups began reconciliation talks aimed at demonstrating they can provide a coherent and effective alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which hold the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland is convulsed by a year-old uprising that Assad is trying to crush.
About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts call an “open house” meeting on Tuesday.
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has sought support for the meeting to end with a “national oath,” committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed.
“Based on the national responsibility on all the political powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that the new state will be based upon,” a draft declaration said.
It said the new Syria will be “civic, democratic and totally free,” with a transitional government to organize a ballot to elect a founding assembly to draft a new constitution.
“The Syrian people are proud of their cultural and religious diversity. Everyone will contribute in building the future,” it said.
There are likely to be fierce debates on the wording of the oath and on the strategy to overthrow Assad, as well as on calls for reform of the SNC, delegates said.
Some delegates feel that while the SNC has more than 300 members, only a handful take decisions and that while all sectarian and ethnic groups are represented on the executive, that was little more than tokenism.
“The executive council will have to do something to show it is listening to people,” said a diplomat observing the meeting. “There is a feeling it is not transparent or democratic enough.”
A few weeks ago, a few leading dissidents withdrew from the SNC, dismayed by its leadership and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which draws support from Syria’s Sunni majority.
This disunity has fed fears that Syria’s agony will not end if Assad is pushed out, giving pause to governments which would otherwise be glad to see his downfall.
Turkey hosts a “Friends of Syria” meeting of mostly Western and Arab foreign ministers on April 1 to try to agree measures to persuade Assad to call off his security forces, permit inflows of humanitarian aid and allow a political transition.
Whether they are in the SNC or not, main opposition figures will also attend, a Turkish official told reporters on Monday.
The official also stressed that Turkey’s role was purely to facilitate the opposition gathering, though it urged unity.
“We have been talking to almost every figure in the SNC,” the Turkish official said. “They have to take everybody on board to show they are representing every walk of Syrian society.”
Ghalioun, a Paris-based secular professor of politics, was chosen in October as a consensus candidate to hold the presidency for an initial three months, but he has held onto the position despite strong criticism of his leadership.
His attempt in December to draft an accord between the SNC, made up mainly exiled dissidents, and the National Coordination Body, a centrist bloc inside Syria, was rejected by the SNC executive council.