The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

January 18, 2014

Syrian opposition to attend peace conference

ISTANBUL — The main Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending a coming peace conference aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year conflict.

The vote in Istanbul came as food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria's capital for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by President Bashar Assad's government ahead of the peace conference, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.

The Coalition was under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The Syrian government has already said it will attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.

The Coalition's leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that they are heading to the conference "without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution and we will not be cheated by Assad's regime."

"The negotiating table for us is a track toward achieving the demands of the revolution — at the top of them removing the butcher from power," Jarba said.

But many Coalition members are hesitant to attend a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with powerful rebels on the ground, who reject the talks. Many members boycotted the Istanbul meetings that began on Friday, forcing the Coalition's legal committee to approve the decision in a simple majority vote.

Although Islamic rebel groups reject any talk with the government, the head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, said in a statement that he backs "a solution that guarantees a political transition of power."

He called upon Coalition officials heading to Geneva to demand that Assad and his top officials leave power, have no role in Syria's future and set up a transitional government "with full powers" that include control of security agencies and open corridors to allow food into besieged areas.

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