Syria says it will attend peace talks as anti-Assad opposition debates next steps

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 26, 2013 

— For a fourth day, Syria’s fractured opposition spent Sunday haggling over how to expand their coalition, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad unveiled two new initiatives – accepting an invitation to send representatives to a peace conference to end the 26-month uprising and announcing that Syria would open its borders to “tourists” from Iraq, a move analysts said was intended to allow Shiite Muslim fighters to join Assad’s military defense.

The Assad regime announcements contrasted with the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s indecision not just on a way to incorporate new factions into its membership, but also on the rest of its agenda: elect new leadership, decide on a strategy for the Geneva peace talks proposed by the United States and Russia and name an interim government.

Its inaction provoked a group of young Syrians to attempt a sit-in to protest the role that U.S. and other foreign governments were playing in trying to influence the outcome of the conference as well as the lack of anything to show.

There was a spat even over who should lead the meeting, with Mouaz al Khatib, a Muslim scholar and cleric, insisting on the chair even though he’d twice resigned his post as president and had been replaced by a Christian, George Sabra, who is the coalition’s vice president. Sabra yielded to Khatib’s demand.

Major foreign backers had pressed the coalition to add 25 names from a list compiled by a Syrian Christian dissident, Michel Kilo, according to Louay Saleh, the coalition spokesman, who called them “far-fledged demands” that could upset “the whole structure of the opposition.”

“If you ask to add 40 per cent of the total number, that is too many,” he told reporters.

Later he told McClatchy the countries applying the pressure were Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain and France.

Shortly before 1 a.m. Monday local time, a coalition spokeswoman said voting had begun on a list of 22 names, 18 of them secularists, and a handful of women. A two thirds majority, or 44 of the 63 Coalition members, was required for any candidate to join the coalition.

U.S. and other international officials, and many Syrians, complain that the current make-up of the coalition was over-weighted with Islamists and men, and needed to add Alawites, a Muslim sect related to Shiite Islam to which Assad and most of the ruling elite belong.

The pressure provoked Sunday’s demonstration, those taking part said. One target of their anger was U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, the U.S. envoy to Syria who’d been meeting with coalition members throughout the day.

Ford, who entered the hotel as the young Syrians were being ushered out, told McClatchy he was unaware that he’d become the target for the protest. Ford slipped past his critics, who didn’t recognize him.

Another prime target was the coalition itself, whose formal name is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. “We don’t want a fight over chairs,” one protester who did not identify himself told a large group of reporters at what became a street-side protest. “We don’t want the Americans, the British and the French in this hall. They are putting pressure to accept names and attend the Geneva conference.”

Hand-lettered posters in English and Arabic conveyed disparate messages. “Qusayr is dying. The whole international community is lying,” read one, referring to the city near the Lebanese border now besieged by pro-Assad forces, including an unknown number of fighters from Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia and political party from Lebanon.

Another indicated the protesters’ lack of faith in the coalition. “Robert Ford, we have more confidence in you than in our coordinating committee,” the sign said.

One of the principal organizers of the demonstration, Aboul Goud, 23, who is from the bitterly contested city of Homs, where rebels and pro-Assad troops have been battling for more than a year, also provided evidence of divisions within the coalition. A former staffer in the coalition’s media office in Istanbul, he said that dissidents within the coalition had encouraged the protest. Two coalition members took part in the protest.

Spokesman Saleh said the young protesters “had a point” with their criticisms and said he had invited them to address the whole group Monday morning. Goud dismissed the offer as not serious and vowed: “We’re going to remain all over them.”

“We can’t let go. We’ve had the Assads for 40 years. If we leave decisions to these guys, we’ll have more of the same,” he said. Quoting an Arabic proverb, he added: “a clever man doesn’t drive into the same pothole twice.”

Meanwhile, the Assad regime, whose military forces have been reversing rebel gains on a number of fronts in recent weeks, sent signals regarding its own plans for the Geneva talks and the course of the war, riling the coalition, which has been unable to articulate its own position thus far.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem announced in Baghdad that the Assad regime would send an official delegation to the Geneva alks. He said the proposed conference “represents a good opportunity for a political solution to the crisis in Syria," according to news agency reports.

"Since the start of the crisis in Syria, we believed that dialogue among the Syrian people is the solution to this crisis,” Moallem was quoted as saying by the government’s official Syrian Arab News Agency.

The idea of a “dialogue” with the Assad regime has been roundly denounced by the Syrian opposition, and is unlikely to find many supporters here.

“Really, we are not looking for a dialogue,” Saleh said. “A dialogue presupposes that we agree on a lot of issues. We are interested in negotiations that lead to a transition of power and a transition to democracy.” He said under the transition, “all the powers that reside today with Bashar Assad will be given to the transitional government.”

Western diplomats monitoring the meetings here said that Moscow is insisting that there be no agenda and no preconditions to the talks, including no insistence in advance that Assad step down, something both the opposition and the United States have long considered a non-negotiable.

But a refusal by the opposition to send delegates could also allow Assad and his primary international supporters, Russia and Iran, to claim that it is the opposition, not the regime, standing in the way of a solution.

The format for the talks is expected to be the subject of a meeting in Paris Monday between John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

Moallem also announced while in Baghdad that Iraqi “tourism groups” would be welcomed in Syria and that all visa charges had been dropped. Coalition officials took this as an invitation for Shiite militants from Iraq to travel to Syria, joining Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian advisers and volunteers now fighting with the Syrian army.

Moallem made it clear that Syria sees its struggle against the rebels, who include the Nusra Front, a group the United States says is just a front for al Qaida in Iraq, as the same that now confronts the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.

Moallem praised a massive Iraqi army operation against Sunni militants in the country’s west "because this is a joint Syrian-Iraqi issue."

"The terrorists in Syria have their extension in Iraq and vice versa, and we hope these operations will be successful as they guarantee the security of the Iraqi people and contribute to combating terrorism," Moallem said.

Moallem met with Maliki and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari during his visit to Baghdad. Afterwards, Zebari said that Iraq would attend the international conference.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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