Syrian opposition gathers for talks

Sun, Sep 23, 2012, 01:00

Syrian opposition figures are holding a rare meeting in Damascus for talks during which they are calling for the overthrow of the regime.

Some 16 opposition parties are taking part in the conference headed by the national co-ordination body for Democratic Change in Syria — a Syria-based opposition group.

The rare opposition gathering in a regime-held city is to discuss peaceful ways to end Syria’s civil war and help unite the fragmented opposition.

Today’s meeting at a hotel in the capital was held under tight security and was attended by ambassadors of Russia and Iran, two allies of embattled president Bashar Assad’s regime.

The Syrian opposition suffers divisions between the largely exiled opposition and those based inside the country. The two differ on means to topple president Assad.

Meanwhile the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has moved its leadership for the first time from Turkey to parts of Syria that are now controlled by rebels, the group's commander-in-chief said.

The FSA has been based in Turkey for more than a year as fighters have struggled to battle forces loyal to Dr Assad. Although rebels now control large swathes of Syria, they face air and artillery attack from Dr Assad's forces.

"The leadership of the FSA has entered the liberated areas (of Syria) after the success of the plan that the FSA has worked on with other battalions and units in order to safeguard the free areas," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said in a video statement.

A rebel source close to Dr Asaad said that the colonel arrived in Syria two days ago. "The plan is that all the leadership of the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib province or Aleppo province," the source said, adding that the move would be completed within two weeks.

The rebels made their announcement on the eve of a conference of several government-sanctioned Syrian opposition groups in the capital Damascus aiming to provide a political solution to the civil war - a meeting which the FSA dismissed as a ploy by Dr Assad to fool the international community.

The FSA is the most prominent of several armed groups fighting to overthrow Dr Assad. In the video, posted on the web, the rebel colonel said his men would "fight side-by-side" with all groups and planned to take Damascus soon.

Despite calling for Dr Assad to step down, the West is wary of arming disparate rebel groups. Western diplomats say they are looking for signs that the rebels have a clear chain of command within Syria.

Turkey, which is housing more than 80,000 refugees from Syria, is facing internal pressure to distance itself from the conflict, and rebels are not always welcomed by residents.

Rebels shot down a fighter jet as it flew over the northern Syrian town of Atarib in Idlib province yesterday, a witness said.