DAMASCUS // Syrian opposition figures yesterday called for the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad at a rare meeting of anti-regime groups held in the government-controlled Damascus, a possible attempt by the gathering to position itself as an alternative to the armed rebellion.
Rebels fighting Mr Al Assad often dismiss the so-called "internal opposition" as too lenient on the dictator, so the strong statements from the 16 parties in the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB) may be aimed at gaining credibility among Syrians who despise the regime but are weary of an uprising that has become a grinding civil war.
Mr Al Assad's government restricts criticism in areas it controls.
But the group would have its work cut out for itself to make its peace initiative, centred on a ceasefire, gain traction. Many rebels look askance at any plan short of Mr Al Assad's immediate removal from power, seeing it as a play for time.
Ambassadors from Iran and Russia attended yesterday's conference. Both countries support Mr Al Assad, suggesting the regime authorised the gathering to bolster its own rhetoric that there should be a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis through dialogue.
A statement distributed later said the conference participants had agreed on a number of principles, mainly "overthrowing the regime with all its symbols" while emphasising the need for "peaceful struggle to achieve the goals of the revolution".
"It's our right to meet here in the capital to express our views without being subject to dictates and pressures or to be forced to make concessions," said Hassan Abdul Azim, the NCB's leader.
The Syrian opposition suffers deep divisions between the largely exiled opposition and those based inside the country. While agreeing on the need to topple Mr Al Assad, the two differ on the means. Unlike the Free Syrian Army rebel group and Syrian National Council (SNC) made up largely of Syrian exiles, the NCB is opposed to the militarisation of the uprising and foreign military intervention. It is also more inclined to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the 18-month-old crisis.
The new group's leaders accuse the rebels and the SNC of being beholden to Turkey, which shelters Syrian generals and opposition figures, as well as Arabian Gulf countries that support the rebels.
The rebels, in turn, accuse the NCB of being cut off from grassroots opposition fighters.
The statement that emerged from yesterday's conference called for an immediate ceasefire accompanied with the full withdrawal of the Syrian army from towns and cities and the release of all political detainees and kidnapped people. This would be followed by negotiations between the opposition and the Syrian government on a peaceful transition of power, it added.
Yesterday, Syrian aircraft carried out strikes on rebel bastions across the country as at least 40 people were killed nationwide.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said apartment blocks in Albu Kamal were targeted as rebels and soldiers battled in the town on the Iraqi border. "The insurgents are trying to wrest control of this strategic town" in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, said the group's head, Rami Abdel Rahman.
In Homs, the country's third-largest city, government artillery and air raids targeted the outskirts of the Jubar, Sultaniya and Baba Amr districts where rebels hold positions, said the human-rights group.