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Syrian peace talks set for Switzerland

| Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
A resident walks amid damage after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo January 18, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Smoke rises after what activists said was caused by helicopters throwing explosive barrels by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad in the Al-Hawoz neighborhood of Aleppo killing 14 people, January 18, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

ISTANBUL — The main Syrian opposition group on Saturday voted in favor of attending a peace conference, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the decision, made at talks in Istanbul, calling it courageous, the BBC reported.

Meanwhile, 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, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.

The Syrian National Coalition was under pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open on Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The Syrian government said in November that it would attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.

The coalition's leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that his group is 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 talks with the government, Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, said in a statement that he backs “a solution that guarantees a political transition of power.”

He called upon coalition officials heading to Switzerland 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.

The coalition's media office said that of 73 voters, 58 voted in favor of attending the conference in Geneva. Fourteen voted against attending, two abstained, and one simply turned in a blank ballot.

The vote culminated two days of acrimonious discussions that risked shattering the fractured coalition, which is widely regarded as having failed to present a credible alternative to Assad's government since the coalition was formed more than a year ago. Some 45 coalition figures boycotted the vote in a sign of the controversy surrounding the decision to talk peace after three years of bloodshed.

Most members of the 125-member coalition said they recognized they had no choice but to vote “yes” if the group was to retain any relevance as the only internationally recognized representative of the Syrian opposition. But the decision represented a dilemma for the loosely configured assembly.

“This is a tough vote,” Khalid Saleh, the coalition's spokesman, told The Washington Post on the eve of the vote. “The victims are being asked to talk to the killers.”

The coalition's ineptitude has lost it the support of most ordinary Syrians as well as a majority of the armed rebel groups, making it unclear whom the group will represent — or whether it will be able to implement any decisions taken.

The disagreements have been compounded by intense rivalry for influence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the opposition's chief financial backers. Most of the 45 who withdrew are allied to Qatar, and Western diplomats exerted pressure on Qatar to persuade them to return, coalition members said.

The talks are backed by the United States and Russia and form the centerpiece of the Obama administration's policy of seeking a negotiated settlement to Syria's crisis.

Kerry warned on Friday that additional pressure on Assad might be applied if he does not negotiate in good faith. The United States is “not out of options” to put pressure on Assad, Kerry said, apparently referring to the fitful U.S. effort to provide weapons and supplies to rebels.

The United States, supported by Britain and France, put pressure on coalition members to agree to attend, diplomats and coalition members said, offering as inducements both threats to withhold aid and promises to provide more.

The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva II, is to agree on a road map for Syria based on one adopted by the United States, Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the establishment of a transitional government and eventual elections.

It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition since the country's crisis began in March 2011. Activists say the fighting has killed more than 130,000 people while displacing millions.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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