Syria opposition open key talks in Istanbul

ISTANBUL – Agence France-Presse – 23.5.2013 – Syria’s main opposition group opened key talks in Istanbul on Thursday to debate whether to agree to negotiate with the regime on ending the two-year civil war under a new US-Russia peace initiative.

The Syrian National Coalition — which is under pressure 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 three-day meeting comes as rebels face a massive onslaught by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah in the insurgent bastion of Qusayr in central Syria.

Since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, more than 90,000 people have been killed in the spiralling fighting between Assad’s regime and the rebels battling to overthrow it. The opposition has long held that it can only enter into talks with members of the regime it it is given international guarantees that the negotiations would lead to the fall of Assad’s regime. Some opposition members have openly expressed reservations over the US-Russian plan for a new international peace conference dubbed Geneva 2.  

“We don’t have a clear picture on Geneva 2. We don’t have a list of attendees, we don’t know what countries are going to attend, what’s the agenda, what’s being proposed, what are the final goals,” Coalition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh told reporters. “Before we’re able to make a final, solid… decision on participation… we still need a lot more detail,” he added. Saleh reiterated a long-held opposition demand that “any transitional period must start with the departure of Assad”. However, with numerous thorny issues on the Coalition’s plate, Geneva 2 is not on the agenda for Thursday, opponents say. The Istanbul meeting began after backers of the anti-Assad uprising — including US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart William Hague — gathered in Jordan on Wednesday to push for peace. In its closing statement, the Friends of Syria group told Assad to commit to peace, warning that it would boost its backing of the opposition if he failed to negotiate a political transition.

Opposition under pressure

The Coalition is under pressure from its international backers to enter talks with the Assad regime, but if it complies the group risks losing what little legitimacy it has left with fighters on the ground. “I think the revolutionaries would turn their back totally on the political opposition” should the international community fail to comply with the opposition condition that Assad resigns, Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

But with a vast onslaught on Qusayr leaving scores of people dead in the past week, Assad appears as far as ever from giving up the fight.In an interview with an Argentinian newspaper this month, Assad implied 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… This is costing the Syrians blood,” Nashar said.According to the Coalition’s Saleh, rebels in Qusayr are in “high spirits” and have “managed to push back the Hezbollah militias” leading a nearly week-long assault on the city. “The intelligence assessments that we’ve been getting in the past three or four days say Hezbollah is fully engaged at this point in Syria,” Saleh added.

At the Amman meeting, Kerry urged Assad to commit to peace.

“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,” he said. In Istanbul, dissidents are also seeking 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. 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, a Coalition source told AFP on condition of anonymity. Hitto has pulled together a list of ministries and representatives for all but the interior and defence portfolios — but his proposals may not even see the light as he too may end up being replaced, the official added.