Opposition Coordinates In Syria

Anti-government activists from Syria are gathering again in Istanbul to chart a path toward the end of the Assad regime. There is talk of forming a National Salvation Council, and efforts are being made to link up with activists in Damascus via Skype. Guest host Linda Wertheimer discusses the situation with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the road again. Today, she's in Athens. But we're going to take a closer look now the delicate, diplomatic dance she performed on her previous stop in Istanbul, Turkey. She raised the spirits of Libyan rebels by granting diplomatic recognition to their national council. But while she was in Istanbul, Syrian opposition activists staged a major conference in the same city and Clinton appeared to keep her distance from them.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to catch us up on all those developments.

Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON: Morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Could we take the Syrian opposition first? Apparently they were hoping to have a big, dramatic two-city event from inside and outside Syria. But the Damascus portion had to be canceled because of violence on Friday. You were at the other one in Istanbul. How did that go?

KENYON: Well, on the positive side, it was large, diverse, dominated by calls for nonviolence. There was a definite buzz of excitement from Friday's news that more than 30 nations, including the U.S., are going to formally recognize the Libyan rebel council. There was some talk of trying to announce some kind of Syrian salvation congress yesterday, but with the Damascus meeting shut down that didn't happen.

I met one young Syrian American activist, Yasser Tabara. He seems to envision a fairly long road ahead for the Syrian opposition. He said while the opposition doesn't want foreign troops in Syria, the international community still has a crucial role to play. Here's what he said.

YASSAR TABARA: The Assad regime needs to be choked economically. It needs to be choked politically. It needs to be choked diplomatically. And I think once we get to a point where international community unanimously declares Bashar al-Assad as an illegitimate leader of Syria that will embolden people on the streets. And then you will see millions upon millions of people in the streets of Syria. And that will take us to yet another of this revolution.

KENYON: Now, the most moving moment of the gathering, Linda, came when longtime activist, Hakim al-Malik, rose to say that his own time may be running short, but that they had been golden of golden opportunity by the youngsters, as he said, who died for a better Syria. So please, he said, don't waste this moment with internal squabbling over marginal issues.

And whether the still an organized activists can do that may spell the difference between success and failure.

WERTHEIMER: Obviously what they want Secretary Clinton to do is what she did for the Libyans. She embraced the Libyan rebels wholeheartedly. What did she say about the Syrian opposition?

KENYON: Not nearly as much - far more cautious in all respects. And I think it's a sign that each rebellion has its own circumstances. The Syrians don't have an army that's likely to turn on their leader, as the militaries in Tunisia and Egypt did. They don't have a safe base of operations as the Libyan rebels do inside their country. Washington has not said Bashar al-Assad must go, as it did with Moammar Gadhafi. And Secretary Clinton was quite circumspect in her comments.

She went so far as to encourage the opposition to engage with the Assad regime. Now, here's what she said.

We're encouraged by what we see of the Syrian people doing for themselves. This is not anything the United States or any other country is doing. It's what the Syrians are doing, trying to form an opposition that can provide a pathway, hopefully and peaceful cooperation, with the government to a better future.

Now, that didn't go over very well with the activists who claim the regime has already killed some 2,000 people in the past four months.

WERTHEIMER: Clinton also had a few things to say about U.S.-Turkish relations. She has some concerns about press freedom that she raised. How was that received?

KENYON: Well, overall, Clinton's comments on Turkey were pretty positive. On issues such as Iraq, Syria, Iran, many others, Turkey's help may prove crucial. The relationship, I'd say, seems to be warming in general. But there are some glaring exceptions to Turkey's reforms - one being the scores of journalists now behind bars here. It's still a crime here, you know, to insult Turkishness, which is a rather they charge that seems to change with whoever is in power.

Secretary Clinton's approach seemed to be to point this out as an aberration. A friend saying, look, this is an embarrassing stain on your otherwise improving record. Now, whether those comments will have much impact on a rather complicated bilateral relationship that remains to be seen.

WERTHEIMER: Peter, thank you very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Peter Kenyon. He's in Istanbul.

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