Turkey talks to Syrian dissidents and warns Assad: 'Time is running out'

Ankara gives Bashar al Assad time to change but says he must move fast, as opposition groups meeting in Turkey called for his immediate resignation.

Members of Syrian opposition shout slogans to protest against President Bashar Assad after their meetings in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya on June 2, 2011, aiming at a plan for the demise al-Assad. Al-Assad launched the day before a "national dialogue" while freeing hundreds of political prisoners in an amnesty opposition groups and Washington say does not go far enough.  AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN

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ISTANBUL // Turkey confirmed it is in direct contact with Syrian dissidents as opposition groups meeting in Turkey yesterday called for the immediate resignation of Bashar al Assad as president.

Since the revolt against Mr Assad began in March, Turkey, one of Syria's closest allies, has been careful not to take sides, in contrast to Libya, where Ankara is openly talking to the opposition to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Human rights activists say more than 1,000 people have died in protests in Syria. Mr al Assad announced a general amnesty this week, but the opposition dismissed it as too little, too late. Turkey welcomed the amnesty but called on Mr Assad to do more.

By allowing Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Syria to visit Istanbul in April and giving the go-ahead for the much wider Syrian Conference for Change in Antalya this week, Turkey has been making it clear that it does not intend to support the Assad regime come what may.

Ali Babacan, the economy minister and a deputy prime minister in the Turkish government, went one step further in Istanbul yesterday: "We are talking to the opposition in Syria and to Assad himself," he said.

Mr Babacan, a former foreign minister, said although it was still possible for Mr Aal ssad to stabilise Syria by introducing political reforms, time was running out.

"We believe we should give Assad some time to make that change," he said, but "we think they have to move fast".

Amid the violence of the Arab Spring, Ankara has tried to find a balance between its interest in regional stability and its commitment to democratic principles. This has been especially tricky in the case of Syria, with which it shares a 900km land border.

Civil war in Syria could trigger a flow of refugees into Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, told Turkish state television this week he wanted Mr Assad to start releasing prisoners. "It is very, very important to free political prisoners," he said. The prime minister also said he called Mr Assad several days ago and told him to "take courageous steps".

Mr Erdogan said the Syrian leadership had not asked questions about the opposition meeting in Antalya, the biggest gathering of Syrian opposition representatives so far. "If they do, my answer is ready: if their own side wants to stage a similar meeting, our door is open to them as well."

In Antalya, dozens of supporters of Mr Assad gathered in front of the hotel hosting the opposition conference both on Wednesday and yesterday. They chanted slogans in support of the Syrian president and denounced the opposition delegates as American and Israeli agents.

In a joint statement after two days of talks there, Syrian opposition groups said Mr Assad should step down as president immediately.

The meeting's closing statement urged him to hand power to his vice president and hold free parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.

Participants in the talks, most of whom came from exile groups, also elected an executive committee of 31 members, which will include representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish groups, secular organisations, women and other sectors of the opposition.

The committee will coordinate opposition action and support dissidents inside Syria, lobby world leaders and document state violations during the uprising. Under the umbrella of the executive committee, several smaller groups will deal with economic questions such raising money to support dissidents inside Syria, with media relations and other issues. Another meeting of Syrian opposition representatives will be held in Brussels in the coming weeks, according to participants.

"Change is inevitable, the pressure is only going to grow" in the Middle East, Mr Babacan said. International travel and modern technology were important factors, he added.

As an example, Mr Babacan pointed to the 1.8 million Iranians who visited in Turkey last year. "They go home and tell what is happening in Turkey," he said.