Syrian opposition resumes tough talks on unity key to peace push

Syrian opposition resumes tough talks on unity key to peace push

ISTANBUL - Reuters
Syrian opposition resumes tough talks on unity key to peace push

ead of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces Mouaz al-Khatib, speaks during the group's meeting in Istanbul. AP photo

Syria's opposition resumed talks on May 25 aimed at closing their fractious ranks, crucial to launching an international peace conference. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers are to meet in Paris on May 27 to discuss how to nudge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition into peace talks in Geneva the two world powers have jointly proposed.

Sources at the Syrian National Coalition, which began its third day of meetings in Istanbul, said its main players had agreed to focus now on international demands for a broadening of the Islamist-dominated coalition.

Attempts to strike a grand bargain involving veteran liberal campaigner Michel Kilo and businessman Mustafa al-Sabbagh, Qatar's point man in the coalition, went nowhere in talks that stretched overnight, senior coalition sources said.  "We are back to square one," one of them told Reuters.

Concerned by the rising influence of Islamists in the rebel ranks, the United States has pressed the opposition coalition to resolve its divisions and bring more liberals into the fold.

The coalition will try again to admit some members of the Kilo bloc into the organisation, which is controlled by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Sabbagh faction, possibly creating a third force in the coalition.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Arab adversary of Assad, has agreed to play a more active role in furthering the coalition cause, diplomats and coalition members said.
Clashing Saudi, Russian priorities

Saudi Arabia, the sources said, will want to see the Geneva conference, which could convene in the next few weeks, put the exit of al-Assad at the top of the agenda.

But they said Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, wanted it to focus on a ceasefire although there is scant rapport between opposition politicians abroad and rebels inside Syria.

The inability of the coalition to alter its Islamist-dominated membership as demanded by its international backers and replace a leadership undermined by power struggles is playing into the hands of Assad who, according to Russia, is prepared to send representatives to the peace conference.

"The coalition risks undermining itself to the point that its backers may have to look quickly for an alternative with enough credibility on the ground to go to Geneva," a senior opposition source at the talks said.

Senior opposition figures said the coalition was likely to attend the conference, but doubted the meeting would yield any immediate deal for al-Assad to leave power - their central demand.