x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syria's opposition factions engage in fist fight in Arab League meeting

A brawl at a meeting of the Syrian opposition this week in Cairo put on display the divisions among those struggling to oust president Bashar Al Assad.

CAIRO // A brawl at a meeting of the Syrian opposition this week in Cairo put on display the divisions among those struggling to oust president Bashar Al Assad.

The row that spilt into the marble-lined corridors of a five-star Cairo hotel on Tuesday came during a two-day meeting sponsored by the Arab League.

There was little sign of solidarity from the outset as the 200 members of Syrian opposition groups and activists, ranging from Islamists to secularists, most of them living in exile, haggled over the shape of a post-Assad Syria.

"Such disputes will tarnish the image of the opposition and destroy the spirits of our rebel fighters inside," said the activist Gawad Al Khatib, 27, who watched in disbelief when Kurdish activists stormed out after trading blows with rivals. Opponents shouted abuse as they left.

After two days of meetings, the groups agreed broadly that any transition must exclude Mr Al Assad and support the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The Syrian regime has long blamed terrorists for the violence in the country. The FSA deny having links to terrorism, and say they do not have the desire or the capabilities to carry out suicide attacks.

On Tuesday, the SITE monitoring group, which tracks extremist chatter on the internet, said the Al Qaeda-inspired group Al Nusra Front released statements on websites in late June claiming the attacks were to avenge the killings of Syrians by the government.

One of the attacks targeted a pro-regime television station in the town of Drousha on June 27. Seven people were killed in the attack on Al Ikhbariya TV.

Al Nusra said the station is an arm of the regime and the attack sought to make the station "taste from the cup of torture" and force every member of the regime to wonder: "When will my turn come?"

Other attacks in the latest claim of responsibility include dozens of armed raids and bombings - including suicide bombings - in Syrian cities.

The Cairo meeting, meanwhile, had been boycotted by the FSA, which criticised the talks for "rejecting the idea of a foreign military intervention to save the people ... and ignoring the question of buffer zones protected by the international community, humanitarian corridors, an air embargo and the arming of rebel fighters".

On Tuesday, the Syrian Revolution General Commission pulled out of the conference, saying it refused to "engage in political disputes".

Russia, meanwhile, denied holding talks with the US yesterday about offering Mr Al Assad exile as a way out of 16 months of bloodshed, which the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has claimed more than 16,500 lives.

Yesterday, a Syrian general and a number of soldiers defected and crossed into Turkey, the 15th such high-ranking officer to flee the conflict-wracked nation, a Turkish diplomat said. The diplomat, who requested anonymity said a total of 66 people fled into Turkey from Syria yesterday, including the general and two colonels as well as soldiers and their families.

The chief UN observer in Syria criticised the international community yesterday for talking too much in luxurious settings, and for failing to find a solution to the crisis.

"There is this feeling that it's too much talk in nice hotels, in nice meetings and too little action to move forward and stop the violence," Maj Gen Robert Mood said in Damascus.

In Syria, troops pounded several districts of the central city of Homs yesterday and clashed with rebels as at least 19 people were killed in violence across the country, said the Syrian human-rights group.

* Reuters with additional reporting from Agence France-Presse