By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Ayla Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syria's splintered opposition leaders reunited under an opposition umbrella group on Tuesday in a bid to show the world they can form a real alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.
At the same time, Assad's opponents grouped around the Syrian National Council (SNC) remained skeptical of a peace and ceasefire plan drawn up by U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan if that plan did not lead to Assad's removal.
The Syrian government said on Tuesday it had accepted Annan's plan [ID:nL6E8ER9C0], but some SNC members dismissed Assad's word.
"He is buying time. It means more killing. He is playing games," said Adib Shishakly. "Every hour we are losing five people. So really, time is life."
Invited by Turkey and Arab League chair Qatar to form a common front in their year-old uprising against Assad, in which the United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed, the opposition came to the meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday riven by internal disputes.
Early on in the talks in a seaside hotel, veteran dissident Haitham al-Maler and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.
Faced with a meeting teetering on the brink of failure, the Turkish hosts, according to delegates, exerted pressure on SNC leaders to accept calls for reform and replace some personnel in key positions.
The opposition also came under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who told reporters in Washington the opposition should promise to protect the rights of all Syrians in any political transition.
A small group of influential leaders, including Maler, who had withdrawn from the SNC a month ago, agreed to return on condition the council was made more democratic and expanded within three weeks. Without a deal there was a danger the SNC could splinter further.
"A last-minute deal has saved this conference," SNC member Abdelrahman al-Haj said.
"Now the international community no longer has an excuse to withhold support for the revolution, help arm the Free Syrian Army and establish safe zones to protect the civilian Syrian population."
Opposition disunity has fed fears that Syria could slide into sectarian and ethnic conflict, giving pause to governments which would otherwise be glad to see Assad's downfall.
The deal satisfied all but the Kurds, who stayed away due to the refusal of some SNC members to accept their demand for a reference to Kurdish rights in the group's vision for a post-Assad Syria.
Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader who had split from the SNC last month, said he doubted whether the opposition would hold together, but for now their accord will help Arab and Western governments make Assad stop his brutal repression.
"I have had to make deals here today with people I am morally opposed to dealing with," Labwani told Reuters. "By agreeing here today we will help avoid civil war in Syria."
SNC president Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, said he would meet to discuss reform of the SNC with all opposition blocs on Wednesday.
"THOUSANDS HAVE DIED FOR IT"
Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani voiced support for the Annan peace and ceasefire plan, as long as it led to Assad's removal.
"This is for us a position that cannot change because thousands of Syrians have died for it," Kodmani said.
SNC president Ghalioun earlier outlined proposals that included helping organize and arm the rebel Syrian Free Army, established by army defectors to resist Assad's forces, and raising money to pay recruits.
In an opening address to the meeting, Turkish foreign ministry official Halit Cevik said there was no alternative to Assad's regime going, and he extended support to the SNC as a platform for different strands of the opposition.
Shortly afterwards, however, Haitham al-Maleh, a venerable opposition figure who was jailed by both Assad and his father, walked out after Ghalioun made a pitch for greater unity.
"I want to see the council act democratically. Until now, they are acting like the (ruling) Baath Party," Maleh, who withdrew from the SNC last month, told Reuters.
Representatives of Syria's Kurds followed suit, saying the SNC had failed to explicitly address Kurdish hopes of having an autonomous federal region within a post-Assad Syria.
The meeting ended with all the opposition, barring the Kurdish contingent, pledging to build a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Michael Roddy)