US, French and Japanese envoys visit Daraya, outside Damascus, in apparent show of solidarity with protest movement.
A group of Syrian activists have formed a council representing a united front in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, marking the six-month anniversary of the beginning of the uprising against his government.
About 140 figures, including exiled opponents and 70 dissidents inside Syria, were chosen as members of the new “Syrian National Council”, concluding a four-day meeting in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The council aims to help topple Assad within six months and form an interim government thereafter, Basma Kadmani, a Syrian exile living in France, said at a news conference.
“The political vision of the council will give a push to the escalation of the revolutionary work we are seeing,” Kadmani said.
“This group, based on previous initiatives, and on what the street is demanding, is calling for the downfall of the regime with all of its limbs.”
While not ruling out foreign military intervention in Syria as more protesters call for international protection, Kadmani said the focus for now was on stepping up diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad.
A popular uprising began in Syria in mid-March and turned violent after Assad’s security forces reacted with deadly force.
About 2,600 civilians have been killed so far, according to United Nations estimates, and reports of brutal use of force continue to trickle out of Syria.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, made an unusually strident call on Thursday urging Assad to end the crackdown.
“When he has not been keeping his promises, enough is enough and the international community should really take coherent measures and speak in one voice,” Ban said about the embattled Syrian leader.
Ban has had several telephone conversations with Assad since the protests erupted on March 15, during which the Syrian president repeatedly promised to end the bloody crackdown and institute political reforms.
“These promises have become now broken promises,” he added, saying that it was for UN member states and the Security Council to decide what action should be taken after Syria ignored repeated international appeals.
Al Jazeera’s Omar Saleh, reporting from the Jordanian capital of Amman, says “protesters will be welcoming these remarks. However, they will want tougher stances and not words. They need action because according to them, they have been slaughtered for the past six months.
“Yet, I don’t think [the remarks] will have impact on the Syrian leadership to stop the violence. I think the leadership in Syria is betting on the fact that the international community, mainly the Security Council, is divided.”
While the US, UK and France have called on Assad to step down and imposed sanctions against him and other figures believed to be involved in the deadly crackdowns, Russia and China have blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to impose more sanctions against Syria.
Filling the gap
There has been global condemnation against the Syrian government’s repressive response to the pro-democracy protests, but also has bemoaned the lack of a unified opposition that it could talk to.
The Syrian opposition consists of a variety of groups with often differing ideologies, including Islamists, secularists and leftists, and there have been numerous meetings of exiles and others who say they represent the opposition.
By finalising names of its members, drawn from Syria’s various political, religious and ethnic groups, the council hopes to fill the gap for the international community, Adip Shishakly, a member of a prominent Syrian political family, said.
“The next step will be international recognition, and the council will act in accordance with the wishes of the Syrian people,” Shishakly told the Reuters news agency at the end of the Istanbul meeting.
Having struggled to agree on the group’s composition at past meetings, members of the new council said the opposition was now looking to move forward with more purpose.
“In terms of external actions, the council will be seeking to fill the vacuum identified by the international community, as an alternative to Assad’s regime and represent the position of the Syrian revolution in an efficient and credible way,” said Yaser Tabbara, a Chicago-based lawyer, who was in the steering committee for the council and was named among its members.
“We’re really concerned with the demands of the people inside Syria, and we’ll seek a meaningful dialogue with those inside on the next step that they want us to take.”
The opposition has had unofficial contact with foreign governments and expects that, with the formation of the council, meetings with European and Arab governments would follow, as well as consultations with the UN, Arab League and Organisation of the Islamic Conference, he said.
Separately on Thursday, the president of the UN human rights council urged Syria to co-operate with an international probe into possible crimes against humanity committed during Syria’s crackdown.
UN human rights investigators, who carried out a preliminary assessment in the region but were not allowed into the country, said in a report last month that the government’s crackdown might be grounds for prosecutions at the International Criminal Court.
They said they had evidence against 50 suspects.
Meanwhile, violence continued in Syria as hundreds of soldiers backed by dozens of tanks, stormed towns and villages near Syria’s northwest border with Turkey on Wednesday.
Activists said at least four villagers were killed.
A Syrian government official said this week that reports of mass killings of civilians were exaggerated and that 700 soldiers and police had been killed by “terrorist groups” and a similar number of what she described as mutineers.
Meanwhile, the US has urged its citizens in Syria to leave the country immediately, repeating a warning issued in August, and noted new sanctions imposed on the Syrian government.
“These sanctions prohibit US citizens or residents from making payments or providing any material support to the Government of Syria, providing services to Syria, or making new investments in Syria,” the US state department said.