Syrian National Coalition begins talks in Istanbul

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Former Syrian National Coalition President Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib attends a meeting on 23 May 2013, in Istanbul. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

Published Thursday, May 23, 2013

Syria's main opposition group opened talks Thursday in Istanbul to debate whether to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad’s government on ending the bloody two-year civil war, as proposed by the US and Russia.

During their three-day meeting, the Syrian National Coalition – which is under fire from both its backers abroad and rebels on the ground – is also expected to choose a new president, discuss expansion to include new members and decide the fate of an interim rebel government, opposition members told AFP.

The meeting in Turkey comes as rebels face a massive onslaught by the Syrian army and its supporters in insurgent bastion Qusayr, in central Syria.

Since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, the United Nations estimates that more than 80,000 people have been killed in the spiraling fighting between Assad's government and the rebels battling to overthrow it.

The opposition has long held that it can only enter into talks with members of the government given international guarantees that talks would lead to Assad’s fall from power.

"There is a condition that Assad resigns" under the US-Russian peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2, Coalition member Salem al-Moslet said on the conference sidelines.

However, with numerous thorny issues on the Coalition's plate, Moslet added that the issue was not on the agenda for Thursday.

The meeting starts a day after international backers of the anti-Assad uprising gathered in Jordan to push for peace in Syria.

The meeting included US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart William Hague.

In their closing statement early Thursday, the Friends of Syria group told Assad to commit to peace, warning that they would boost their backing of the opposition if he failed to negotiate a political transition.

"In the event that we can't find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and our growing support for the opposition," Kerry said.

In Istanbul, some SNC members said it was unclear whether they would be able to make a final decision on Geneva 2 by the end of their meeting.

The Coalition is under pressure from its international backers to enter talks with Assad, but if it complies the group risks losing what little legitimacy it has left with fighters on the ground.

"The Coalition and (key opposition movement) the Syrian National Council have made clear their condition to any talks is the resignation of Bashar al-Assad," Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

"I think the revolutionaries would turn their back totally on the political opposition" should this condition remain unfulfilled, he added.

But with the ongoing battle in Qusayr, Assad appears as far as ever from giving up.

In an interview with an Argentinian newspaper this month, Assad implied that he would stay until the next scheduled election in 2014.

"The regime and its backers are trying to change the situation on the ground militarily, in order to gain the upper hand in negotiations," Nashar said.

In Istanbul, dissidents also aim to name a new Coalition president to replace Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who resigned in March, as well as three new vice presidents and a new secretary general, a Coalition official said on condition of anonymity.

The opposition is seeking to establish a rebel government under interim prime minister Ghassan Hitto, while discussing the group's expansion to include 31 new members, the source added.

That expansion comes after pressure from Coalition backers for a more inclusive opposition, he said.

Hitto has pulled together a list of ministries and representatives for all but the interior and defense portfolios – but his proposals may not even see the light as he too may end up being replaced, the official added.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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