Divided Syria opposition agrees to peace talks
Silivri, Turkey • Under intense international pressure and facing a boycott from a third of its members, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces voted Saturday to send a delegation to an international peace conference aimed at ending Syria's civil war.
Of the 75 coalition members who participated, 58 voted for and 14 against. Two members abstained and one cast a blank ballot.
The United States and other international powers have pushed hard for the conference, set to begin Wednesday near Geneva, which they see as the only way to end nearly three years of fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking to end his rule.
Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the opposition's decision to attend the conference in a statement, calling it "the best opportunity to achieve a political transition."
But the conference's ability to make steps toward that goal is by no means assured.
Saturday's vote, which passed with votes from less than half of the coalition's members, put on display the divisions among Assad's enemies as well as the deep reservations many of them have about negotiating with a man they believe should be charged with war crimes.
In a sign of those conflicts, 44 of the coalition's 119 active members announced before meetings began Friday at a hotel in Silivri, west of Istanbul, that they would not participate in the vote. Other prominent opposition groups have also said they would take no part in the conference.
In televised comments after the vote, the president of the coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, said the group had not compromised on its goals in agreeing to sit at the negotiating table with the Syrian government.
"The table for us is a one-way passage to fulfill all the demands of the revolutionaries, foremost among them stripping the murderer of his powers," he said. "I assure you that we are not few or weak and we have the free people of the world with us."
After the vote, four of the dissident members and one from Jarba's bloc resigned from the coalition entirely.
There has long been a rift between the members of the coalition, primarily Syrian exiles, and the activists and rebels inside Syria, many of whom vocally oppose the conference and say the coalition does not represent them.
Many of the members who boycotted the vote said they did so because they did not believe that it had enough support from rebels inside Syria.
"This is a very big mistake," Nasr al-Hariri, a spokesman for the group that boycotted the vote. "This decision will put us in conflict with the opposition on the ground."
Others argued that negotiating with the government violated the coalition's founding charter and thus could only be authorized by a two-thirds majority. But before Saturday's vote, the coalition's legal committee announced that only a simple majority of those present would be enough for the measure to pass.
The Syrian government has vowed to attend the talks but has tried to shift their focus to fighting "terrorism," under which it categorizes most opposition to Assad's rule. Syrian officials have also made it clear that they do not expect Assad to yield power anytime soon.
The United States and other nations, however, have sought to reassure the opposition that the conference would remain focused on its stated goal of creating a transitional government with full executive powers.
The conference is set to convene at a time when the war's battle lines have fractured, complicating the prospects of ending it. Rebels in the country's north have been locked in battles in recent weeks with an al-Qaida-inspired group that has sought to take advantage of the power vacuum in rebel-held areas to lay the groundwork for a transnational Islamic state.
The presence of extremist Islamic elements among the rebels has made the West wary of providing them with military aid, while many fear that foreign fighters who have been radicalized and battle-hardened by their time in Syria will return to their home countries to carry out attacks.
Assad's forces have shored up their positions around the capital, Damascus, and the central strip of the country where most of the population lives. This means that Assad's government is under little military pressure to make concessions.
"Right now, I just don't see what leverage the international community has to convince the Assad regime to hand over power," said Amr al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, and a member of the Syrian opposition. "What is missing in all of this is some vision, some framework, some idea of what this transitional government is going to look like and how it is going to operate."
In an effort to bridge the gap between the coalition and the rebels, a group of representatives from countries that support the opposition held a separate meeting Saturday in the Turkish capital, Ankara, with leaders of prominent rebel brigades to try to solicit their support for the talks. A coalition spokesman said three rebel groups had agreed to support the peace conference.