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Fights break out at Syrian opposition meeting

CAIRO (Reuters) - A meeting of Syria’s splintered opposition in Cairo descended into scuffles and fistfights on Tuesday that dealt another blow to Western leaders seeking a unified front against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting also failed to resolve many of the differences between the rival Syrian opposition groups, further complicating efforts to find a viable alternative to rule by Assad, whose forces have killed thousands of Syrian civilians and combatants.

“This is so sad. It will have a bad implications for all parties. It will make the Syrian opposition look bad and demoralize the protesters on the ground,” opposition activist Gawad al-Khatib, 27, said.

A Syrian Kurdish group quit the meeting, provoking mayhem and cries of “scandal, scandal” from delegates. Women wept as men traded blows, and staff of the hotel used for the meeting hurriedly removed tables and chairs as the scuffles spread.

“We will not return to the conference and that is our final line. We are a people as we have language and religion and that is what defines a people,” said Morshed Mashouk, a leading member of the Kurdish group which walked out.

“The Kurds withdrew because the conference rejected an item that says the Kurdish people must be recognized,” said Abdel Aziz Othman of the National Kurdish Council. “This is unfair and we will no longer accept to be marginalized.”

The outburst lasted only a few minutes, and some said it had been stage managed to get the Kurds on television.

When one Kurd screamed, “Nothing has changed, we need to be listened to” as he walked out of the conference room, in front of cameras, a young activist followed him shouting: “This is a faked withdrawal seeking to make the conference fail.”

Sixteen months into an uprising against Assad, the failure to rally Syria’s disparate religious and ethnic groups behind a united leadership will make it more difficult to secure international recognition.

An official from the meeting’s host, the Arab League, who attended the closed meetings, said of the opposition group: “Yhey are so different, chaotic and hate each other.”


A final statement read by Syrian opposition leader Kamal Al-Labuany, said:

“All the attendees of the conference agreed that the political solution has to start by the fall of the regime represented in Bashar Al-Assad and the icons of his power and calls for an immediate halt of violence committed by the Syrian regime.”

Reading from a one-page statement, he said the opposition groups agreed on the “importance of preserving civil peace and national unity”.

But at times that spirit of “national unity” was hard to detect, in the Kurd walkout and in the sparring over how best to create a unified front against Assad.

Opposition leader Haitham al-Manah told Reuters that one of the points of disagreement was over authorities to be granted to a committee to act as a face of the opposition.

A draft document, put together by a 16-person preparatory committee, had called for setting up a follow-up committee to coordinate all the opposition parties and to execute the contents of documents agreed at the talks.

“The Syrian National Council (Syria’s main opposition group)has rejected that this committee act as a leader, which shows its interest to remain the sole leader of the opposition,” Manah said.

A senior leader of the SNC told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the council had rejected granting any leadership powers to such a committee and wanted it to act solely as a coordinator.

However, the divided opposition did discuss in broad terms what their nation should look like after Assad.

One of those principles was to have a new Syria governed as a “republican, democratic, civilian, pluralistic system”.

This covenant also referred to social justice in the economy with redistributive taxation policies, while providing investment security and an economic system that would prevent monopolies.

A document on how to handle the transition from Assad’s rule said his Baath party would be dissolved but everyone - provided they did not have “hands stained with blood” - would be allowed to help steer the country.

It also said a meeting should be held in Damascus to create a temporary legislative body and an interim government during the transition. It outlined actions to reform the army and to form a committee to investigate crimes against the Syrian people, such as massacres and political detentions.

Assad has held on far longer than other Arab leaders who faced popular uprisings, in part due to his willingness to use overwhelming force but also because of divisions among his population, the opposition and the international community.

Russia, Syria’s longtime ally, opposes U.N. action proposed by Western powers. The United States and European powers have themselves shown no appetite for military intervention of the kind they used in Libya.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Edmund Blair, Tom Pfeiffer and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Michael Roddy