Syria Opposition May Attend Talks Involving Assad Aides

Syria’s main political opposition has not ruled out attending a U.S.-Russian-sponsored conference that would include members of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, its acting chief said today.

The Syrian National Coalition is discussing with allies inside and outside Syria a position on the conference seeking a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, George Sabra said in a phone interview from Istanbul today. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are pressing for the meeting.

The coalition said last week that any political solution “should start with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and the pillars of his regime.” Sabra said that was a longstanding position “but this is an international conference and the coalition hasn’t taken any stand on it until it’s clear what the conference is about, who will attend and when it will start.”

International and regional efforts have failed to put an end to the Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011 that evolved into a civil war. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the violence, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Seeking to address the opposition’s concerns, Kerry said last week in Rome that Assad wouldn’t be part of any transitional government. On May 7 in Moscow, Kerry agreed with Russia’s position that Assad’s resignation can’t be a precondition for talks, saying a leadership transition must occur by “mutual consent” of the opposing sides.

Outside Pressure

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said the “natural conclusion” of the coalition statements is that the opposition may have been pressured by outside powers to start negotiating with the Assad regime.

“Up till now their legitimacy has come from the international community’s recognition of them as representatives of the Syrian people,” Shaikh said. “With that in mind, yes they can come under pressure because this is their main source of support.”

The “international community is scrambling now to find a way to deescalate the situation,” he added in a phone interview from Morocco.

‘Hopeful News’

The UN’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has agreed to withdraw his planned resignation and seek a solution at a peace conference proposed by Kerry and Lavrov, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said last week.

The U.S.-Russia effort “is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Brahimi said in a May 8 statement.

The crisis has seeped into neighboring countries, like Lebanon and Turkey. Twin car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, killed 46 people on May 11. The Turkish government blamed the attack on Turks with ties to Syrian intelligence.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi rejected the accusation, instead blaming the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the blasts, the official SANA news agency said.

The Turkish government has been facilitating the delivery of weapons, explosive devices, car bombs and money into Syria, al-Zoubi said at the Intellectual Political Symposium in Damascus yesterday. “I ask Erdogan to step down as a murderer,” said al-Zoubi.

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