* Turkey to host "open house" meeting
* Draft talks of Syria being free, democratic
* Some leading dissidents sceptical of council
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Simon Cameron-Moore
ISTANBUL, March 27 Syria's fractious opposition
groups begin reconciliation talks in Istanbul on Tuesday aimed
at demonstrating they can provide an effective alternative to
President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar,
which holds the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in
Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland
suffers under Assad's brutal repression of a year-old uprising.
About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a
seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of
Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts
call an "open house" meeting on Tuesday.
Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella
group, the Syrian National Council, has sought support for the
reconciliation meeting to end with a "national oath", committing
all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any
agenda for revenge, and to seek national reconciliation once
Assad is removed.
"Based on the national responsibility on all the political
powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the
opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that
the new state will be based upon," a draft declaration said.
It said the new Syria will be "civic, democratic and totally
free", with a transitional government to organise a ballot to
elect a founding assembly to draft a new constitution.
"The Syrian people are proud of their cultural and religious
diversity. Everyone will contribute in building the future," it
SOME DISSIDENTS WITHDRAW
A few weeks ago, a handful of leading dissidents withdrew
from the SNC, dismayed both by its leadership and influence of
the Muslim Brotherhood, which draws support from Syria's Sunni
This disunity has fed fears that Syria's agony won't end if
Assad is pushed out, leaving governments which would otherwise
be glad to see his downfall hesitant over how to engineer an
endgame without an acceptable alternative in place.
Turkey hosts a meeting of foreign ministers from "Friends of
Syria", grouping mainly Arab and Western governments, on April
1, with the hope of agreeing measures that could persuade Assad
to call off his security forces, permit inflows of humanitarian
aid, and allow a political transition.
Whether they are in the SNC or not, main opposition figures
will also attend, a Turkish official told reporters on Monday.
The official also stressed that his government's role in the
opposition gathering was purely to facilitate the meeting,
though it urged unity.
"We have been talking to almost every figure in the SNC,"
the Turkish official said. "They have to take everybody on board
to show they are representing every walk of Syrian society."
Ghalioun, a Paris-based secular professor of politics, was
chosen in October as a consensus candidate to hold the
presidency for an initial three months, but he has held onto the
position despite strong criticism of his leadership.
His attempt in December to draft an accord between the SNC,
a group containing a large number of exiled dissidents, and the
National Coordination Body, a centrist bloc inside Syria, was
rejected by the SNC executive council.
Liberals and other Islamists are unhappy with the influence
the Muslim Brotherhood wields in the SNC, while ethnic Kurdish
leaders have shunned the group.
Syrian Kurds were attending the reconciliation talks as were
several of the dissidents who had earlier quit the SNC to form a
rival Syrian Patriotic Front.
The difficulties coming together were unsurprising for a
country where political opposition has been throttled by 42
years of Assad family rule.
"This is a learning process in the politics of opposition,"
the Turkish official said.