Assad, protest, Syria - AFP - 5.6.11
Syrians living in Lebanon carrying portraits of President Bashar Assad as they rally after Friday noon prayers in support of his regime. Photo by AFP
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More than 70 Syrians were killed over the weekend in the largest anti-government protests yet against President Bashar Assad's regime, with around 50 killed in the city of Hama alone, according to a Syrian human rights group. A Kurdish source says Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was in Iraq Tuesday in an effort to meet with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to convince Barzani to prevail on Syrian Kurds not to join the anti-government revolt, but Barzani refused to meet with the Syrian minister, the source says.

The Syrian regime is operating on the assumption that if it can split the opposition to Assad's government by enlisting Kurdish support or entering a dialogue with opposition groups, it can paint the other protest groups as subversives who don't represent the public. To further that goal, Assad has decided to set up a national dialogue committee, which would be followed by a clear timetable for talks with the opposition.

A preparatory committee on the matter is being headed by Vice President Farouk Shara, but its members are all representatives of the regime. These moves make it clear that Assad believes he still has enough power to foil the protests and has no intention at this point to cede power to the opposition.

Leaders of the protest movement, some of whom are longtime rivals, have announced that a united opposition movement will convene in Syria, open to anyone who wishes to join. It's not clear yet if Assad will allow those plans to go forward, but the development is significant nonetheless: A common opposition front has been lacking in Syria.

Syrian opposition leaders met in Antalya, Turkey, last week, where it was agreed that the protests in Syria should not be stopped and that reforms that Assad might propose should be rejected in favor of the fall of the current regime. The protest leaders are concerned, however, about divisions in their ranks that could work in Assad's favor.

The opposition is being put to the test and has to prove itself, one activist, Amar Abdel-Hamid, told the website Elaph. He spoke about the difficulty in convening a group with disparate worldviews, but added that the Syrian regime is facing a test as well. The opposition's main focus at this point is to enlist world public opinion to get Western countries, particularly the United States, to take a firm line against Assad and his regime. Syrian opposition forces are disappointed that the United States has not demanded Assad's ouster the way it did with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

A source in Washington told Haaretz that this stems in part from Russia's strong support of Assad, as well as uncertainty over what would replace the current regime in Syria, where no independent government or economic institutions exist. There have been a number of unconfirmed reports from Syria on the arrest of senior Syrian officers who refused to have their units use force against demonstrators. The opposition assumes that if Washington demanded Assad's departure, the Syrian army could shift its stance.