Rebels' alliance with al-Qaida adds urgency to Syria conference
International powers will search for a peaceful settlement to Syria's civil war with fresh urgency at an Istanbul meeting after a rebel faction aligned itself with al-Qaida, diplomats and opposition sources said on Sunday.
The meeting on Saturday of 11 countries from the Friends of Syria alliance will occur after the al-Nusra Front, among the strongest formations seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri on April 10.
“We will be meeting under the shadow of the advances of Nusra and other militants. The recent al-Qaida statements have injected a new urgency for the international community to push to end the conflict,” said an official who will attend the meeting on the conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.
Western powers, which want to see the end of the Assad family's 43-year rule but do not want to intervene militarily in Syria, have been alarmed by the advance of groups like the Nusra Front in a conflict, which has deepened the Middle East's sectarian divide.
Among those invited to Istanbul will be Moaz Alkhatib, a moderate cleric from Damascus, who said he was resigning as head of the Syrian National Coalition in March after other members of the main opposition group attacked his proposal for negotiating with Assad, the sources said.
Envoys representing most of the 11 Friends of Syria countries met in Cairo this month to press Alkhatib to stay on as leader of the Syrian National Coalition, a 60-member opposition umbrella group backed by the West and gulf Arab states, the sources said.
Those at the Istanbul meeting also will discuss how to pressure Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia, into accepting a negotiated settlement, the diplomats said.
“The international powers are inclined to call Assad's bluff and see if he is ready to accept a peaceful solution,” another diplomat said, adding that Russia also might favor such a move.
The conflict, which pits the Sunni Muslim majority against Assad's supporters among his Alawite sect, has prompted Sunni and Shiite militants from elsewhere in the Middle East to fight in Syria. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.