CAIRO Arab states and Turkey urged Syria's divided opposition on Monday to unite and form a credible alternative to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but rifts swiftly emerged at talks in Cairo.
The unity calls were made at the opening of a two-day meeting organized by the Arab League to try to rally Syria's opposition, which has been beset by in-fighting that diplomats say have made it tougher for the world to respond to the crisis.
Sixteen months into an uprising against Assad, squabbling among the opposition makes it less likely to be able to win international recognition or to get more than half-hearted foreign support.
"It is not acceptable to waste this opportunity in any way. The sacrifices of the Syrian people are bigger than us all and more precious than any differences or individual and party interests," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said, addressing the roughly 200 Syrian politicians and activists.
Diplomats and officials at the talks, which are being boycotted by the Free Syrian Army which is leading the armed struggle against Assad's forces, said they did not expect a major agreement to emerge but hoped for some progress.
"We don't expect the opposition will unite today after what we have seen in past meetings, they are always fighting behind closed doors," said one League source. "But there is always a chance that things could change for the better."
Even as the talks got under way, divisions appeared between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and other opposition figures based abroad.
Syrian Islamists said they objected to those calling for a complete separation between state and religion in a new Syria. Others said any agreements reached in Cairo would not necessarily hold sway inside Syria.
International powers, also divided on how to react, agreed at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but left open the question of whether Assad might play a role in that process.
Syrian opposition figures in Cairo said they would not discuss forming a government-in-exile at the talks but would work on a single vision. Arab diplomats and officials said they had low expectations, but hoped some gaps could be bridged.
The foreign minister of Turkey, which has turned against Assad, delivered some of the strongest criticism of Syria's government but also urged the opposition to rally together.
"The Assad regime's guns, tanks and weapons have no meaning in the face of the will of the Syrian people. Sooner or later the will of the Syrian people shall reign supreme," Ahmet Davutoglu said in his address to the Syrian opposition.
"There surely will be different points of view among yourselves, this is totally normal, but the cause is one," he said. "The expectation of the Syrian people from you is to deliver a strong message of unity."
The talks included about 10 groups, including the leading Syrian National Council (SNC) which has itself faced splits in its ranks, plus other activists and Syrian individuals.
The attendees ranged from secularists to Islamists, and differences in their views appeared early in the two-day talks.
INSIDE VS OUTSIDE
"On the top item of the document that we are all supposed to sign and agree to, there is an item asking for the full separation between religion and state, which we don't agree to," said Khedr Al Sotari of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, although he said the group was not seeking a religious state.
Adib Shishakly, a member of the SNC, said one of the biggest challenges was bridging the gap between Syrians in exile and those on the ground protesting against Assad.
"The main problem we are facing is the division between the opposition groups inside and outside Syria, which is a crucial matter because those inside Syria will have to play a big role in any institutional set up," he said.
Walid al-Bunni, a doctor jailed for years in Syria for his activism before fleeing last year, said the meeting aimed to form a coordinating committee that would not lead the opposition but would implement group decisions and be a face for the world.
Some said they would oppose giving such a committee a big role. "We are against this proposed follow-up committee having powers to execute decisions," said Nouri al-Jarrah, head of a Syrian writers group.
One Arab League diplomat said the Syrian opposition's failure to unite strengthened Assad's position and made it more difficult for the world to respond, contrasting the way opponents of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi had closed ranks.
"They completely lack unity, unlike the Libyan National Council which was organized and on the ground enabling us to support it more," the diplomat said. "The Syrian opposition is distant from the people and unorganized."
(Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Diana Abdallah)