Syrian killings stall bid to unite opposition

An effort to unite Syria’s opposition-in-exile with the fledgling protest movement that has erupted on the streets of Syrian cities fizzled Saturday, a day after security forces shot dead 32 anti-government protesters around the country, forcing government opponents to cancel plans to gather in Damascus.

A parallel conference of exiled regime opponents went ahead in Istanbul, but in the absence of the domestic Syrian protest movement, which had been planning to participate via Skype, the meeting failed to achieve its stated goal of coming up with a unified strategy for ousting President Bashar al-Assad.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting with Turkish officials a few miles away, a day after she offered formal U.S. recognition to the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, also while in Istanbul.

But she made no effort to meet with the Syrian opposition there, despite hopes expressed before the conference by some opposition figures that she would. Instead, she offered only lukewarm support for the Syrian gathering and made it clear that the United States hopes the protest movement will engage in dialogue with the Syrian government, something most opposition groups reject.

“We’re encouraged by what we see the Syrian people are doing for themselves. This is not anything the United States or any other country is doing,” she said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “It’s what the Syrian people are doing, trying to form an opposition that can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future.”

U.S. officials have indicated that they are unwilling to engage with the Syrian opposition until they have a clearer picture of who they are and what they want. “I think we don’t know how this is going to end yet,” Clinton told a gathering of young people in Istanbul earlier Saturday.

A small group of Syria-based activists addressed the Istanbul conference via Skype from a secret location. Walid Bunni, a human rights lawyer, said the conference had to be canceled after Syrian security forces stormed the Damascus suburb where the gathering was to have been held, and shot dead at least 15 anti-government protesters.

Yet even before the killings, it was unclear whether the effort had the support of the youthful street protesters who have done more than any of the mostly aging dissident politicians to challenge 40 years of Assad family rule.

The Local Coordination Committees, one of several groups engaged in organizing protests inside Syria, said it would not have sent representatives to the Damascus conference because it was unsure of the motives behind it and had still not drawn up a strategy of its own to oust Assad.

Underscoring that the uprising’s momentum still belongs to the street, huge crowds gathered in Damascus on Saturday for the funerals of 23 people killed in the capital on Friday during what appeared to be the biggest protests yet in the city. Videos posted on YouTube showed thousands of people marching through the central Damascus neighborhood of Rukn el-Din and many thousands more thronging the streets of the suburb of Qaboun, where 16 people died.

The Syrian opposition is also far from forming any kind of unified structure. Haitham Maleh, 80, a veteran dissident who was permitted by the Syrian authorities to travel to Istanbul for the conference, last week proposed the creation of a shadow government along the lines of the Libyan council, but the idea was abandoned after Syrians active in the street protest movement shot it down.

“It’s too early, it needs more work and he did not consult any other group,” said Rami Nakhle, an activist with the Local Coordination Committees in Beirut.

Wan reported from Istanbul.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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