Analysis: Opponents of Syria's Assad struggle for unity

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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad's opponents have taken a step toward unity by forming a national council to represent Syria's uprising but have a long way to go until they create a broad-based alternative to his rule.

Six months after protests demanding political freedoms broke out, opposition figures meeting in Istanbul named members of a Syrian National Council on Thursday to steer a transition in case Assad falls and to liaise with international powers that have condemned the crackdown.

France welcomed the council's creation, but in a sign of obstacles and internal rivalries which the opposition must overcome, not all names were finalized and some figures appointed to the group said Islamists won too much influence.

Aside from the goal of Assad's downfall and a transitional period to democracy that preserves state institutions, the council has yet to produce a credible leader who can command wide respect on the street. Other groups may still try to set up alternative leaderships both inside and outside Syria.

"They have not brought together everyone, and there are varying objections on the members, but the fact is that they finally formed a council after months of bickering over the names, while the regime has been killing 20 Syrians a day," prominent Syrian writer Hakam al-Baba told Reuters.

"A main objective now is to address the international community, and I think the council can do that. They have also left the door open for the rest of the opposition to join," said Baba, a dissident who lives in the Gulf.

The opposition is also still far from forming a front similar to one set up in the past by Iraqi opposition groups which campaigned for Saddam Hussein's removal and was well connected in the West, especially Washington.

One opposition figure not in the council said Islamists were over-represented on the newly announced body.

"The National Council has taken an Islamist flavor at the time we need to assure all minorities and the ethnicities more of their future in a post-Assad Syria," said Thamer al-Jahmani, a prominent lawyer from Deraa who took refugee in Jordan last month after the assassination of a fellow activist.

Among 70 of the announced names for the 140-member council were Sheikh Anas Airout, a cleric who has played a key role in protests in the coastal city of Banias, and Sheikh Muti al-Butain and Bashar al-Heraki from the city of Deraa, members of a "neo-Islamist" current opposed to rigid interpretations of Islam and in favor of a civic form of government.

"I have been counted as an Islamist just because I pray and have a light beard," Heraki said. "Even using this way of counting, Islamists end up representing a little over a quarter of the council as it stands."

A declaration issued by the council said its goal was in line with calls for the "downfall of the regime," chanted by thousands of protesters every week since the outbreak of unrest in March. The United Nations says 2,600 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on the protests.

A spokeswoman for the council said that while members opposed foreign military intervention they supported international protection for civilians.

Western nations, which have been increasing sanctions on Assad and his inner circle, have called on the opposition to unite, but they show no appetite for an intervention similar to the NATO bombing that helped remove Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

The council said a power vacuum must be avoided during any transition to democracy. Minority rights must be safeguarded, along with "the non-violent character of the Syrian revolution."

DO THEY MATTER?

Secular figures such as veteran leftist Khaled al-Haj Saleh and politics professors Najib Ghadbian and Wael Mirza, and rights campaigner Ammar al-Qurabi are members, as well as 50 unannounced names from grassroots activists inside Syria.

Hozan Ibrahim, a spokesman of the Local Coordination Committees, one of the more secular groups, said the council was not national because "not everyone is there."

Diplomats following the Istanbul gathering said talks were taking place to win endorsement of the Damascus Declaration, signed by a group of veteran opposition leaders such as widely respected dissident Riad al-Turk, who spent 25 years as a political prisoner, and former parliamentarian Riad Seif.

The Damascus Declaration is seen as having moral authority over protesters though its signatories have played little role in demonstrations, which started when a group of younger activists, mainly women, rallied in Marjeh Square in Damascus in March demanding the release of political prisoners.

Another figure the National Council wants to bring on board is Burhan Ghalioun, a French-based professor who met the Istanbul group in Qatar this month but chose not to join it, diplomats said.

"The opposition is in a steep learning curve and they have to prove as a council that they matter. We must not forget that after six months they have not yet agreed on a set of principles of what to do, not even one unified statement," one diplomat said.

"I think the Istanbul people felt the street pressure and said we have to do something and form a body even if not everyone else agreed," the diplomat said.

Previous efforts by Haitham Al-Maleh, a former judge who spent almost a decade in jail, to form a shadow government failed after security forces killed 15 protesters near the Syrian venue where his conference was due to take place and authorities arrested two leading opposition figures.

Other opposition groups, including one led by charismatic Kurdish leader Mishaal Tammo and a centrist bloc led by Hassan Abdel Azim, are also seeking to form a "National Assembly." Activists have separately formed a Revolution Leadership Council, whose membership is mostly secret.

"If the figures on the inside manage to form a national assembly, the outside conference should join it," Jahmani said.

Secular opposition figure Louay Hussein said that any grouping needs to win support from a "silent majority" he said yearns for democracy but fears possible chaos if Assad falls.

Hussein last week launched an initiative that proposes withdrawing the army and pro-Assad militiamen from the streets, release of political prisoners and scrapping of repressive laws and legal impunity for the security apparatus in return for the opposition entering into talks with the authorities for specific measures for a transition to democracy.

"The authorities are not ready to listen to anyone. They have closed their ears and are pursuing a security solution," Hussein said. "But we still need to reach a consensus on how to move from the current totalitarian system to a democratic state."

(Editing by Dominic Evans)