BEIRUT Two leading Syrian opposition parties have agreed a road map to democracy should mass protests nearly in their 10th month succeed in toppling President Bashar al-Assad, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Syria Friday, aiming to demonstrate the strength of their movement to Arab League monitors checking whether Assad is implementing a pledge to halt his armed crackdown on the unrest.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had shot dead 27 people Friday in areas where there were no observers, adding to the toll of a conflict that the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people, most of them unarmed civilians.
The Observatory said four civilians were shot dead on Saturday, three by snipers. The bodies of three detainees were also returned home, and a woman died of gunshot wounds, it said.
With little confidence in the Arab observer mission, opposition groups are trying to create a coherent movement to boost their credibility in the eyes of other countries fearful of chaos if Assad is forced out.
The leading opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), signed the deal Friday with the largely Syrian-based National Coordination Committee, according to Moulhem Droubi, a top SNC member from Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
The two groups have received attention from Western powers, although it is not clear how much sway they hold with the mass of protesters.
The document seen by Reuters says the deal will be presented to other opposition groups at a conference next month.
ARAB INTERVENTION POSSIBLE?
The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the SNC's calls for foreign intervention - one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.
Under their pact, the two sides "reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign."
The parties outlined a one-year transitional period, which could be renewed once if necessary. In that period, Syria would adopt a new constitution "that ensures a parliamentary system for a democratic, pluralistic civil state."
The document also stresses that religious freedom will be guaranteed by the new constitution and condemns any signs of sectarianism or "sectarian militarization."
Most of the protesters come from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad still appears to enjoy significant support from members of his Shi'ite Alawite sect, from which most of Syria's ruling establishment is drawn.
Analysts say the Alawites may feel compelled to help Assad fight to the death for fear of reprisals by a growing force of armed rebels.
The Arab League plan calls for a verifiable withdrawal of troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities, where they have been trying to crush protests that have raged since March.
Activists say they have little faith that the Arab League mission can help to stem the violence against them.
MISSION UNDER SCRUTINY
The mission is still short of its planned strength of 150 members, who must observe events in dozens of towns and cities across the country of 23 million people. And it relies on state security escorts who some protesters say have prevented access to the demonstrators.
"We don't know what to do. But we know Assad and his regime won't give us what we want," said opposition activist Ziad in Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has seen big protests. "So why should we wait for them to help us?
"Assad wants us to raise our weapons and kill each other and he is pushing us toward that every day. We wanted the monitors to help us find a solution, but it won't happen."
SNC head Burhan Ghalioun said Friday that if the government did not implement the peace plan, "there is no other solution except going to the (U.N.) Security Council - and I think we are walking toward the Security Council."
Saturday, thousands took to the streets in the protest hotspot of Idlib, carrying the bodies of three slain protesters wrapped in white sheets and sprinkled with leaves.
"The martyr is beloved by God and Assad is the enemy of God," the protesters shouted, according to witnesses. Most foreign media are banned from Syria, making witness reports hard to verify.
Assad, 46, says Islamist militants steered from abroad are the source of unrest and have killed 2,000 of his forces.
The state news agency SANA reported at length on "massive demonstrations" throughout Syria Friday in support of Assad, and against "the plot which Syria is exposed to."
It said demonstrators had denounced "the pressure and biased campaigns targeting Syria's security and stability" and the "lies and fabrications of the misleading media channels" that had caused Syrian blood to be shed.
Some protesters have decided their best hope lies with the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors and armed rebels who have been taking the fight to Assad's forces and sometimes overshadowing the peaceful protests.
"I think it's obvious at this point that the Arab League needs to take a stronger stance. We need support for the Free Syrian Army," activist Manhal Abu Bakr said by telephone from Hama.
"It has been nearly a week and they (the monitors) haven't stopped the killing ... (Security forces) are shooting, why should we be killed?"
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said at the outset of the mission that it should take only a week to establish if Assad was keeping his promises.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army told Reuters Friday he had ordered his fighters to stop attacks while the FSA tried to arrange a meeting with the monitors.
But in a newspaper interview published Saturday he said if the Arab mission was "not professional," the FSA would "resume our defense operations."
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky urged the Arab League on Friday to "take all steps possible to ensure that its observer mission will be able to fulfil its mandate."
He said the United Nations was willing to train the observers in human rights monitoring.