Two major Syrian opposition groups forged a deal that charts a course for democracy if and when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime crumbles.
Representatives of the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria signed an agreement late Friday in Cairo for a transition in a post-Assad era, the NCB said on its Facebook page.
The development comes amid more death and raucous protests in the country, wracked with discord since mid-March when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, some of whom urged reforms and others who wanted regime change.
Protesters turned out on Saturday for anti-regime rallies in restive cities, including Homs, Idlib, and Hama, activists said. They occurred as an Arab League fact-finding mission continued its work to determine whether the Syrian government is abiding by a peace agreement to end a brutal crackdown on protesters.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist group with a network of contacts across Syria, said at least nine people died Saturday. Three were killed in Homs. One each was killed in Hama in the west, Banias in the northwest, Abu Kamal in the east, Kafar Soseh in Damascus province, and Daraa in the south.
The opposition groups hope to end the violence and the al-Assad regime’s push against demonstrators.
The NCB is a coalition of 15 functioning parties operating in Syria and in exile dominated by pro-democracy liberal, Marxist and Kurdish parties. The SNC has broad support, with a strong Sunni Muslim component and is backed by the Turkish government. Syria is about 75 percent Sunni Muslim. Alawites, who dominate in the al-Assad government, number about 10 percent.
Their efforts to shape Syria’s future signals a maturation and a strengthening of the anti-regime forces.
“This is a key step on a road to building an effective opposition that can not only win the support of foreign governments but build a unified military machine that’s going to be able to take on a major power,” said Joshua Landis, an associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“What we are watching today is nation building. Major factions within the Syrian political community coming together and agreeing on strategy.”
A Syrian National Council official said the deal still has to be signed off by its board.
“This is a political agreement for the transitional phase that ends with true democratic process and ultimately with elections,” said council executive board member Walid Buni. “The preliminary points have been agreed upon but it will be presented to the board of the SNC tonight or tomorrow for final approval. An SNC committee will then present it to the Arab League.”
The NCB says the agreement is final.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the NCB said the “agreed text sets out the political and democratic rules for the transitional period, and determines the important parameters for Syria’s future which aspire to ensure that the homeland and every citizen’s rights are treated with dignity, and for the foundation of a civil democratic state,”
The talks between the two groups lasted more than a month. The agreement will be “deposited as an official document” with the Arab League on Sunday in the presence of league Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby, the NCB said.
Khalaf Dahowd, a senior NCB member based in the United Kingdom, said the agreement was signed by the SNC’s Burhan Ghalioun and the NCB’s Haytham Manna in the presence of people from both groups.
“The reason the SNC has not called it final yet may have to do with internal politics. But the agreement is final,” he said.
Dahowd said the agreement serves to unify ranks and create a post-Assad political framework.
He said the agreement calls for the refusal of any non-Arab foreign intervention, an important issue because some Syrians want international intervention to overthrow the al-Assad regime. At present, the Free Syrian Army, a rebel force composed of military defectors who’ve taken some actions against regime targets, is on the scene.
The deal calls for “protection of civilians with all legitimate means within international law for human rights” and “honors all soldiers who refused to act on orders to kill civilians,” Dahowd said.
The agreement also recognizes the suffering, language and history of the country’s Kurdish minority and paves the way for a “democratic, parliamentary, pluralistic and power-sharing system. ”
“It is also a message to friends of the regime, the Russians and the Chinese who have been raising fears that once the Syrian regime falls there will be a civil war and chaos. So in the agreement we say do not have any of these fears. This will also make it easy to gain political (international) recognition,” Dahowd said.
Ahmed Hamoudi, general coordinator of a small Egypt-based opposition group called the Syrian Revolution Coordination, said there are “certain reservations” from some opposition people about the agreement’s failure to mention putting al-Assad on trial and forbidding military intervention “while the Syrians on the ground are calling for a no-fly zone.”
The Arab League, the United States, the European Union and Turkey have deplored the al-Assad regime’s crackdown and initiated sanctions. But Russia and China have stood in the way of a strong U.N. Security Council resolution toward the Syrian government.
Unrest in Syria on Saturday followed a wave of massive demonstrations across the country on Friday, when activists called on citizens to stage protests at their towns squares.
On Friday, the LCC documented 382 demonstrations across the country and 35 deaths during confrontations between security forces and demonstrators.
The government’s Syrian Arab News Agency reported pro-Assad demonstration described as “massive spontaneous gatherings in Syrian cities in rejection of foreign intervention and emphasis on national unity for confronting conspiracy.” It said such events occurred in several regions, including the Damascus area, Aleppo, Latakia, and Tartous.
Earlier this month, al-Assad agreed to a peace initiative with the Arab League that calls for security forces to withdraw from cities, release detainees and end violence. Part of the agreement calls for Arab League observers to monitor whether the government abides by the initiative.
More than 5,000 people have died since mid-March, when al-Assad began the crackdown on anti-government protesters calling for his ouster, the United Nations said this month. But opposition groups put the toll at more than 6,000.