Syria rebels boycott opposition conference


THE CONFERENCE of Syria’s opposition groups that met yesterday in Cairo was torpedoed by the boycotting of the event by Syrian-based rebel fighters and activists.

The meeting, which concludes today, was organised under Arab League auspices with the aim of unifying the fractured opposition and securing agreement to the plan proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and endorsed by world leaders at a conference in Geneva on the weekend. This plan calls for resolution of the rising conflict in Syria by effecting a ceasefire and pursuing dialogue through interlocutors appointed by both the opposition and the government.

The renegade Free Syrian Army and a number of independent activists dubbed the decisions of the Geneva conference “dangerous”, castigated the effort as a “conspiracy” staged by Damascus’s allies Moscow and Tehran, and rejected “all kinds of dialogue and negotiations” with government figures.

“The Cairo conference aims to give a new chance to envoy Kofi Annan to try . . . to convince [Syrian president Bashar] Assad to implement his six-point plan . . . while forgetting that thousands have been martyred since the plan came into force” on April 12th.

The boycotters also criticised those attending the Cairo talks for standing against “the idea of foreign military intervention . . . and ignoring the question of buffer zones protected by the international community; humanitarian corridors; an air embargo; and the arming of rebel fighters”.

Rebels loosely grouped under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army are in a strong position to wreck the Annan plan simply by refusing to halt operations against government forces, personnel and targets, thereby prompting retaliation by regime forces.

Attending the Cairo meeting are 250 members of expatriate organisations including the western-backed Syrian National Council, a coalition of deeply divided groups.

Arab League secretary general Nabil el-Araby, who is chairing the event, urged opposition groups “not to waste this opportunity” and to “unite”. But he complained the new version of the Annan plan “left the door open – at Russia’s insistence – to [Assad] being a part of the interim administration” and it did not fix a firm time-line for a “clear transition”.

Nasser al-Qudwa, Mr Annan’s deputy, urged participants to “unify your vision and your performance”. “This is not a choice but a necessity if the [exiled] opposition wants to gain the trust of its people in Syria,” he said.

Another factor undermining this, the latest effort to unify the opposition, is the absence of veteran opposition groups from Syria. They have tried and failed to join forces with the exiles and have been ignored by external powers.

Meanwhile in Syria, Dr Assad endorsed a terrorism law as al-Nusra Front, a militant fundamentalist faction affiliated with al-Qaeda, claimed last week’s bomb attack on a pro-government television channel that killed seven staff and severely damaged the channel’s studios.

Ghatan Sleiba, an anchor for influential pro-government channel al-Dunya, declared his defection to the opposition after crossing into Turkey and said he had been leaking intelligence to the rebels for months. He said rebel forces are in control of much of eastern Syria. He is believed to be the first major defector from the regime’s propaganda operation.

Homs reportedly faced sustained shelling by government forces. The London-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 16,500 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011, including 11,486 civilians, 4,151 government troops and 870 army defectors.