CAIRO – Syrian opposition groups struggled to form a united leadership and a political platform at a meeting Tuesday that exposed the vast disagreements that have prevented them from effectively leading the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Arguments were rife among the roughly 250 participants at the conference in Cairo over key questions, including whether to ask for foreign military intervention to halt the violence and what role religion would play in a post-Assad Syria.
A week ago, delegates still were debating the wording of a document meant to guide the opposition through a transitional period and present a basic vision of the future state. It was unclear when the final text would be released.
In other developments Tuesday, Assad told a Turkish newspaper that he regretted that Syria shot down a Turkish warplane last month, and a U.S.-based human rights group said the Damascus regime was running a network of torture centers across the country, citing victims’ accounts of beatings, sexual assaults and electric shocks.
Opposition group members interviewed at the Cairo conference by The Associated Press brought into sharp relief their vast disagreements on issues not addressed in the draft charter, suggesting it papered over the divisions that have prevented them from presenting a united front to the international community.
“It’s very dangerous at this point,” said Abdel-Aziz al-Khayyar, who spent 14 years in Syrian prisons and is now part of the Syrian National Coordination Body. “If we fail to unify as the opposition, it is the greatest gift to the regime.”
Since the March 2011 start of the uprising that activists say has killed about 14,000 people, Syrian exiles have organized scores of organizations to collect aid, distribute information and lobby the international community.
But all along, infighting has hampered their ability to court international support. And most groups are led by exiles who have lived outside Syria for years or decades, giving them little credibility with activists inside the country.
Indeed, many inside Syria resent the exile leadership, saying they have taken the glory without sacrificing to face the regime.
“We only recognize those who are working inside the country,” Jamal Akta, a rebel commander in the northern Syrian city of Ariha, said recently. “We’ll only recognize those people outside when they are standing in the ranks with us, when we see something tangible from them, real help, not words.”
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with protests calling for political reforms that Assad’s security forces violently quashed. The dissent grew, and many in the opposition have since taken up arms against the regime, transforming the uprising into an armed insurgency. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed.
The vast differences among opposition groups were clearly on display at the Cairo conference, hosted by the Arab League, where participants argued late into the evening over the wording of a document meant to define their movement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington applauded the conference for bringing together a broad range of opposition elements, and she said there was “significant progress” on “a political vision statement and a transition plan.”
However, the meeting failed to resolve many large issues facing the opposition after 15 months of deadly violence.
The two largest opposition groups at the meeting distrust each other. Members of the Syrian National Council accused the Syrian National Coordination Body, known as the NCB, of being too close to the regime. For its part, the NCB accuses the SNC of being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and Western powers.
Late Tuesday, it appeared that efforts to bring all groups under a unified leadership were set to fail – not least of which because Kurdish activists walked out over how the draft charter spoke of their minority.
Even members of the same group disagreed on key issues.
Al-Khayyar, the former prisoner, dismissed those calling for foreign military intervention as “voices that are not very important ... waiting for the world to give its kids to die for our cause.”
Another member of the NCB, Abdel-Basit Hamo, said foreign help was welcome.
“When you’re drowning and someone gives you a hand, do you ask whose hand it is first?” he asked.
Others disagreed on the role of religion in a post-Assad Syria.
“The revolution came out of the mosques, so with my respect to minorities, we want a civil state but we must also remember that more than 80 percent of Syria is Muslim,” said Abdel-Ilah al-Mulham, a tribal leader from the besieged city of Homs and an SNC member.
He said he opposed laws that made men and women equal, saying this counters Islamic law in issues such as divorce and inheritance.
At one point, one attendee broke down in tears outside the meeting room.
“Thousands of martyrs and they can’t unite?” said Thaer Al-Hajy, part of a group called the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union. “We are sitting here in hotels and they are down there dying.”
One independent activist said all agreed that Assad must go, but that there are many different views of what follows.
“These are sensitive issues that go back to people’s ideologies,” said Ziad Hassan, 28. “It could take two years, not two days, to get over our differences.”
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed in Syria. A peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has collapsed, with the almost 300 U.N. observers sent to monitor a cease-fire stuck in their hotels because of continued violence.
On Saturday, world powers endorsed a new plan that calls for the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers. But at the insistence of Syrian ally Russia, the plan does not bar Assad from taking part – making it a nonstarter for the opposition.
In a rare interview with Turkey’s Cumhuriyet daily newspaper, Assad spoke about the Annan plan for the first time, saying he was “pleased” that the decision about Syria’s future was left to its people.
“The Syrian people will decide on everything,” he said.
Assad also said he regretted that Syrian forces had shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22. Syria says the jet was flying low inside Syrian airspace. Turkey says it was shot down in international airspace after briefly straying over Syria.
“I say 100 percent, I wish we did not shoot it down,” Assad said. But he stopped short of apologizing, saying Syria fired in self-defense.
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Assad’s security forces are running more than two dozen torture centers across Syria.
Interviews with more than 200 regime defectors and former detainees revealed more than 20 torture techniques, including sexual assault, acid attacks, punching staples into skin, tearing out fingernails, beatings with sticks and electric shocks to genitals and other body parts, the group said.