Because most activists in Syria were prevented from attending the conference by security concerns, and given the history of squabbling within the exiled Syrian community, it was unclear whether the effort would succeed.
But it was significant that the government’s opponents were finally coming together to try to present a united front to a world that remains skeptical about the Syrian protest movement.
“These are people who could never have met in 100 years without pulling guns and knives,” said Amr Al-Azm, a Middle Eastern history professor and Syrian exile who was among the attendees. “That they are sitting in the same room talking in a civilized way is huge. If nothing else comes of this conference, that’s an important thing.”
For several days, the staging of the conference seemed in doubt as several leading figures — including activists in Syria — questioned its goals and motives. But as a consensus emerged over the goals, organizers expressed satisfaction that a diverse array of the forces opposing the government had showed up.
Lending credibility to the proceedings were several young protest organizers — including one still limping from a bullet wound — who managed to sneak into Turkey from Syria. The cyberactivists who distribute videos of the protests to the world were there, hunched over laptops and tweeting furiously. So too were members of the older generation of exiles, an eclectic assortment of academics, businessmen, leftists and liberals who have spent most of their lives abroad.
And finally, the graying veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood — who fled Syria after the last major uprising against the government three decades ago — turned up in force. They made sure their presence was noted by arriving late for the opening ceremony, noisily chanting “God is great.”
A high priority for attendees is the creation of a committee, to be elected Thursday, that can serve as the voice of the opposition in dealings with world powers, especially the United States. Despite more than 1,000 deaths resulting from the government’s campaign to suppress the protests, no world leaders have called for Assad’s departure. Activists say they are aware that fear of the unknown may be holding leaders back in Washington and elsewhere from criticizing Assad.
President Obama has condemned the Syrian government’s use of violence and has called for Assad to embrace reforms or step aside. That stance differs from the one the United States has taken in Libya, where the U.S. military has participated in a NATO-led bombing campaign and provided critical support to rebel forces.