Skip to main content

Syrian activists meet in Turkey, call on al-Assad to step down

By Ivan Watson, CNN
Click to play
Syrian activists meet in Turkey
  • NEW: Syrian activists issue a declaration telling President Bashar al-Assad to step down
  • The activists are meeting in Turkey in support of the Syrian opposition
  • Dozens of pro-regime Syrians show up in support of al-Assad
  • Al-Assad's regime sent the pro-government group, an opposition activist says

Antalya, Turkey (CNN) -- Hundreds of activists at a meeting in Turkey titled "Conference for Change in Syria" issued a declaration Thursday calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down and hand power to his vice president, with the goal of then organizing democratic elections.

The opposition gathering also declared its support for the "Revolution in Syria," and elected a 31-member council aimed at assisting the protest movement in Syria.

For the last two days, the activists from Syria and international diaspora have gathered in the conference rooms and lobbies of a hotel in this Turkish beach resort, to plot ways to support the bloody revolution in Syria.

There are signs the gathering is worrying the regime in Damascus, which has deployed tanks and soldiers in a bloody attempt to crush a tenacious protest movement.

On Thursday, as activists busied themselves in workshops on social networking and the drafting of a final declaration, dozens of pro-regime supporters gathered outside the hotel wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the portrait of Syrian al-Assad.

"We love Bashar," they chanted.

Tareq Salhab, a dentist who traveled from the coastal Syrian city of Latikiya to Antalya on Thursday, accused anti-regime demonstrators in Syria and the activists in the opposition conference in Turkey of being "terrorists" and "traitors."

"You have to go to Damascus and Homs and Latakiya to see the democracy in Syria," Salhab said, listing Syrian cities.

Syrian authorities have denied all CNN requests for journalist visas since last February. Meanwhile, human rights groups report more than 800 people have been killed in the government crackdown and more than 10,000 people detained.

Turkish police were out in force in Antalya, ensuring that several hundred pro-government demonstrators could not reach the opposition conference venue.

"This conference is a hard message to the Syrian regime," said Omar al Muqdad, a human rights activist from the Syrian town of Dara'a, which has become the symbol of defiance against the al-Assad family, which has ruled Syria for four decades.

"They (the Syrian regime) sent these people here to protest outside this hotel. That means our message, they got it," al Muqdad said.

"What would post-Assad Syria look like? That's the $50 million question," said Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian-American history professor from Shawnee State University in Ohio. "We've been able to begin to address what the alternative would like like...we've provided a road map," Al-Azm said.

Al-Azm helped draft the conference's final communique, which has yet to be released. He is an unlikely revolutionary though.

Until last March, Al-Azm was a senior consultant on a project headed by Bashar al-Assad's wife, Asma, aimed at reforming Syria's culture ministry.

"What changed for me was the violence, the unprecedented level of violence that seemed random and almost uncontrolled," Al-Azm said. "There are people that I actually know that have had their fingernails pulled out."

Conference organizers say their main goals are to organize committees aimed at supporting protesters inside Syria, communicating with the media, and lobbying foreign governments. Their aim, they say, is to help unite the opposition both inside and outside Syria.