Saturday, May 26, 2018

Foes of Assad meet in capital

DAMASCUS, Syria — In a rare instance of officially tolerated dissent, opponents of President Bashar Assad gathered in the capital on Sunday to call for his removal from power.

The meeting, in a Damascus hotel tightly guarded by government security agents, brought together representatives of about 20 domestic opposition groups, including leftists and longtime dissidents who have struggled to stay relevant as the uprising has become a war.

The gathering, organized by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, appeared to be an attempt by the groups to wrest the mantle of the revolt from armed militias and exile figures. Some antigovernment activists dismissed it as a cynical show by the government, to portray itself as willing to engage its critics.

Over the course of the 18-month conflict, dissidents in Syria have differed with exile groups, especially over the question of foreign intervention, which the main exile opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council, supports. A statement from the Sunday meeting, in which the groups called for a "peaceful" transition of power, seemed to put them at odds with the fighters trying to topple Assad by force.

In an opening statement, Rajaa al-Nasser, who helped organize the conference, condemned the violence, whose recent victims included his son. Nasser said Syria was on the verge of a sectarian war and was becoming a "battlefield for external agendas."

"Our main goal is a fundamental and total democratic change: changing the ruling regime who is responsible for what is happening in the country," he said.

It was unclear whether the meeting would have any impact on the course of the war. That it was able to be held at all suggested that Assad was not greatly concerned about the influence of its participants, members of a dogged but weak opposition movement that has struggled to show unity. The attendance of diplomats from Russia, China and Iran — close allies of Assad's — also implied a measure of official acceptance.

The government has allowed such meetings in the past, including one in June 2011, when more than 200 opposition figures met in Damascus, with many calling on Assad to step down.

But on Sunday some of the organizers said that the ground might have shifted in their favor, as the war settles into a stalemate and many people have become disillusioned with the armed opposition movement. The organizers portrayed the government's attitude about the meeting as ambivalent at best, and possibly nervous, pointing out that three members of the opposition coalition were arrested last week.

There is no clear position from the Assad regime, said one of the organizers, who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity to avoid further antagonizing the government.

There are hard-liners within the government who rejected the conference, which explains the three arrests, he said.

He suggested that Russia, which has faced intense pressure from Western nations to drop its support for Assad, had pushed the Syrian government to allow the conference.

The meeting came a day after the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for fighters opposing the government, announced that they had moved their headquarters to Syria from Turkey. The move was widely seen as an attempt by the group to enhance its legitimacy and to blunt criticism that its leaders were removed from the fighting.

A statement from the Damascus conference called for an immediate cease-fire and for the Syrian army to fully withdraw from towns and cities, the Associated Press reported. The cease-fire would be followed by negotiations to bring about a peaceful transfer of power, the statement said. The approach bore a resemblance to failed attempts by the United Nations and the Arab League to solve the crisis.

The conflict is expected to take center stage at the United Nations starting today as some 120 world leaders converge for a meeting of the General Assembly.

"The deteriorating situation in Syria will be the foremost on our minds," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said last week.

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