Full debate at newarabdebates.com

Cairo, May 27, 2013 - Syria is better off under a fractured opposition than the dictatorship of President Bashar Al Assad, according to an audience at the latest New Arab Debate - a regional free speech forum.

The hard-fought session provoked bitter attacks on the human rights record of both sides but ended in overwhelming defeat of the motion: "This House believes President Assad is now a better option for Syria than the rebels."

Participants voted 77.9 percent to 22.1 percent against the president - with the final tally showing they had swung seven percent against him during the course of the debate.

The event coincided with preparations for a US-Russian peace conference, offering scant hope for a settlement of the conflict that has claimed more than 80,000 lives and displaced six million people.

Speaking for the motion, Dr Yazan Abdallah, academic and member of the Syrian Dialogue Project, said Syria was facing a proxy war, aided by Gulf-run media, some openly supporting Jihadis. But no one had the right to impose a government on the country by force.

Syria, he added, needed a political process, multi-candidate elections and national reconciliation, which only President Assad - still popular in his country - could deliver.

"To all those who have a voice which can influence any of the Syrians in the crisis, please convince them to lay down weapons, resort to dialogue and build a new Syria."

Arguing against the motion, Dr Mustapha Kamel El Sayed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, called on President Assad to resign as a first step towards launching a transitional and all-inclusive political process.

He said Assad had missed a series of "golden opportunities" to engage with the opposition when the protests began but added: "no one is asking what will happen if the president stays. In this case every single protester will be taken to jail."

The New Arab Debates are a high-profile political platform to encourage free speech and accountability in the Arab region.

They are transmitted for the second year running on Deutsche Welle TV along with its global network of partner channels.

Twitter hashtag is #newarabdebates

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