x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syrian opposition plans 'decisive' meeting to unite opposition groups

Muslim Brotherhood set to join a united pro-democracy platform alongside leading secular dissidents to seek end of Assad regime.

DAMASCUS // Syrian opposition groups plan to hold what the organisers say will be a "decisive" meeting in Damascus this month that could see the Muslim Brotherhood join a united pro-democracy platform alongside leading secular dissidents.

In addition, a different coalition of opposition groups - writers, academics, journalists and political thinkers - is soon to announce, perhaps as early as this week, plans to strengthen the anti-regime movement.

These steps come after an extended period of quiet from opposition figures and old-guard dissidents based in Syria, following a brief flurry of activity in June.

Hussein Oudat, a Damascus-based publisher and founding member of the National Board of Coordination (NBC), said the group would hold a conference before the end of this month, which he predicted would be the biggest opposition meeting on Syrian soil since the Baath party seized power in the 1960s.

The NBC was established in Damascus in June by prominent activists and dissidents, including Aref Dalila, Hasan Abdul Azeem, Hazem Nahar and Mr Oudat.

"It will bring together the established political parties working on the ground in Syria and they will elect a leadership council to represent them," he said. "The NBC is now in discussions with Islamic currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and we anticipate them taking part. For that reason, we expect it to be a decisive meeting for the opposition."

The Muslim Brotherhood is technically still a banned organisation in Syria, with membership punishable by death. That has forced the movement underground, making it hard to gauge how influential it is and how closely its leadership-in-exile reflects the opinions of members inside Syria.

Its leaders insist they have left behind more militant ideologies of the 1980s and now embrace the principles of a multiparty democracy that protects minority rights and guarantees a circulation of power.

Dissident groups advocating peaceful regime change from inside Syria are broadly split between young street protesters and older, well-established activists who have spent decades struggling against an autocratic security state. Most have been jailed for their political activity. There is also a growing number of former regime figures calling for a shift to democracy.

While hundreds of thousands of street demonstrators and the local committees organising them have posed the most serious threat to President Bashar Al Assad's rule, established political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are also playing a part in the uprising.

Prominent dissidents involved in June's Semiramis Hotel meeting - the first public opposition gathering in Syria in years and the first since the March uprising began - said they expected to announce the formation of a "political current" this week, possibility in the next few days.

"We are working on creating a 'political current' rather than a political party," said Louay Hussein, one of the Semiramis organisers. "We don't have a licence to start a political party and don't expect to be given one so we will have a bloc that is committed to and agreed to the principles of a multiparty democracy, transfer of power, rule of law and so on."

Mr Hussein said the group would not try to present itself as leaders of the anti-regime movement but would try to appeal to the so-called silent bloc - the majority of Syrians who have neither openly joined the revolutionaries nor come out in firm support of the regime.

"Still the majority of the county is not fully with the protesters in the streets but it is also increasingly unhappy with the regime," he said. "We are six months into this uprising now and still there is no politics. The regime is not really involved in dialogue. There is nothing called politics in this country, just empty talk."

Opposition groups outside of Syria, widely viewed with suspicion by those inside the country, have held a series of meetings and conferences in Turkey and Europe, in an effort to present a unified front. A host of coalitions and leadership committees have been established, but none have been able to claim control over street protesters.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed by security forces since March, according to human-rights monitors and the United Nations, which last month condemned the Syrian authorities for breaking international laws banning torture and murder of political activists.

Mr Al Assad insists his country is facing a violent Islamic insurgency, backed by Syria's international enemies, with insurgents killing more than 400 security officers.

He has promised a series of political reforms, including parliamentary elections loosely scheduled for February, but has refused to cease deadly security operations against protesters and has ruled out standing down, more than a decade after he inherited power from his father, Hafez Al Assad.

Anti-regime protests are now an almost daily occurrence in Syria, despite the arrests of tens of thousands of dissidents and the deployment of military units across the country.