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News ID: 2665
Publish Date: 13:21 - 12 November 2013
Syria’s opposition-in-exile agreed Monday to attend planned peace talks in Geneva but said President Bashar Assad could play no part in a transitional government aimed at ending the country’s civil war.
The Syrian National Coalition also demanded the release of women and children from Syrian jails and an easing of military blockades of rebel-held areas as a precondition for going to Geneva.

No date has yet been agreed for the peace talks, which have been repeatedly delayed by discord between Washington and Moscow and by the coalition’s failure to define its stance.

A statement released after an unscheduled third day of talks in Istanbul said the general assembly of the opposition body "endorsed the Syrian coalition’s readiness to participate in a Geneva conference based on the full transfer of power to a transitional governing body. This body should include full executive powers including presidential powers with control over military and security apparatus.”

"Furthermore, the Assad regime and those associated with him will have no role in the transitional period and future Syria,” it said.

Prior to a Geneva gathering, "access for relief convoys, including the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and other international relief agencies, to all besieged areas must be ensured, and prisoners, especially women and children, must be released,” the group said.

The United States welcomed the group’s decision to attend the talks and endorsed its conditions relating to prisoner releases and humanitarian access.

"We will continue to work closely with our international partners, including Russia, to urge the regime to take these steps and move toward convening the Geneva conference,” a State Department spokesman said, without commenting on the coalition’s rejection of any future role for Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the coalition’s initial statement of attendance, issued late Sunday, was encouraging.

"This is a big step forward and an important one,” he said in Abu Dhabi.

But the Istanbul meetings were marred by a spat between coalition leader Ahmad Jarba and Louay Moqdad, a spokesperson for the rebel Free Syrian Army, as well as the group’s failure to cobble together a provisional government.

According to eyewitnesses, Jarba slapped Moqdad on the face during a dispute late Sunday over whether the question of membership for Kurdish groups in the coalition should be brought to a vote. The two were quickly separated after the altercation.

Kamal Labwani, an outspoken member of the coalition and a veteran dissident, said the slap was "humiliating.”

"We are trying to send the world a message of democracy ... and this sends a very bad message,” he told The Daily Star.

Labwani claimed most of those attending the meeting at the Wyndham Hotel in Istanbul witnessed the assault.

"Everybody in the hotel saw it.”

"It’s humiliating for everybody,’ Labwani said, describing the slap as a "response to pressure to expand and to attend the conference.”The coalition also made no mention of a provisional government-in-exile, after several weeks of media reports speculating that such a body was about to be unveiled. In the last few days, several figures named by the media as possible ministers have indicated they would not accept the posts.

As for the outcome of a Geneva gathering, Labwani said it no longer mattered if the coalition attended.

"The U.S. and Russia will form the transitional government and so it won’t be independent or sovereign ... it will be a new colonization,” he said.

A group of leading rebel brigades said two weeks ago they would charge with treason anyone who attended Geneva if it didn’t result in an end to Assad’s rule.

A rebel who uses the name Abu Nidal, from the Mustafa Brigades in Damascus, said that his group rejected the Geneva meeting because it "does not meet our aspirations.”

The United States and its Western and Arab allies, which have all called on Assad to step down, say last year’s Geneva agreement ruled out a future role for the president. Russia, Iran and other supporters of Assad challenge that view.

"Our position makes it clear that Geneva must result in the removal of Assad, and that Assad and his cohorts with blood on their hands have no role in any transition,” coalition Vice President Farouq Tayfour told Reuters in Istanbul prior to the release of the final statement.

"Foreign forces must also leave the country,” he said, without specifying which forces. Sunni jihadists have flocked to Syria to fight Assad’s army, while the president has been supported by Iran and Hezbollah fighters.

Assad himself, after months of steady gains on the battlefield, has given no suggestion that he is ready to step down and his ministers have repeatedly said the government would not travel to Geneva simply to surrender power.

The coalition also reiterated its promise to hold talks with rebels in Syria, many of whom openly despise the politicians in exile and say they represent the interest of foreign powers.

"A committee of members from the Syrian coalition [has been commissioned] to hold necessary consultations and liaise with the revolutionary forces inside and outside Syria,” the statement said.

The coalition statement said the Geneva talks should be based an international accord agreed in the Swiss city on June 30, 2012, which endorsed the idea of a transitional government.

The statement did not refer directly to another disagreement among international powers, namely whether Iran should attend.

The Daily Star

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