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Syrian Rebels Meet on Possible Geneva Peace Talks

  • Edward Yeranian

In this citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, a Syrian rebel fires a weapon towards Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Nov. 9, 2013.

In this citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, a Syrian rebel fires a weapon towards Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Nov. 9, 2013.

Syria's main rebel bloc, the National Coalition, holds a second day of talks in Istanbul Sunday to decide whether to attend a peace conference in Geneva.

Rebels have resisted talks, saying they say they will go only if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resigns first. A number of top opposition leaders also continue to insist that they will not participate if Iran attends the conference.

U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, says there can be no preconditions.

National Coalition member Haitham Al Maleh said Saturday he is skeptical that a Geneva conference could succeed, repeating that coalition members will not take part if, as he puts it, the Syrian regime continues to "kill people, arrest people and burn the country."

Western officials have said they hope the Geneva meeting can take place before the end of the year.

Fighting continues

The weekend meeting among rebels took place as fighting continued in Damascus and key cities of Homs and Aleppo. Government troops maintained their siege of rebel strongholds in the northern suburbs of the capital, but rebel forces retook a base near Aleppo Airport they had lost earlier.

Sources say fierce fighting overnight left more than 50 people dead.

Leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition met privately and in closed session at an Istanbul hotel, trying to establish a united position with respect to the proposed peace conference in Geneva under U.N. auspices. The attendance of both Iran and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have opposition leaders divided over whether to attend or not.

Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh told journalists his group had yet to make a final decision over whether to attend the proposed conference, but that a number of points need clarifying.

He says that his group is waiting for an official invitation to the conference from the U.N., which is the sponsor of the Geneva conference, and he hopes that the Russians will put pressure on the Assad regime so that success, and not empty words, will come out of the conference.

Assad has not only refused to offer to step down, but he insists that he will run for re-election in 2014.

Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution argues that the Syrian opposition is under intense pressure to attend the Geneva conference, but stands to gain little by doing so, given the bitter divisions among Arab states and a possible U.S. rapprochement with Iran.

“I think the balance in the region in 2013 is catastrophic for the opposition. They will be under immense pressure to go to Geneva," he said. "If they don't go to Geneva, they will be the holdouts, and it doesn't look good for them if they go to Geneva. Either way, it's a lose-lose proposition.”

Ajami also believes that the window of opportunity for the opposition to overthrow Assad has closed, as “advantages of guns, money, and the institutions of state” now favor the president.

The chemical weapons agreement with the Assad regime has given its leader an unlimited respite, he said, since “no one in the international community has an interest in overthrowing [him], while he is turning over chemical weapons.”

Rebel fighters and Islamist militias inside Syria have vowed not to participate in talks with the Assad regime in Geneva. Possible attendance of Assad's estranged uncle Rifa'at al-Assad, as well as fired Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil on the opposition side, also threaten to ignite more divisions.

No official decision on whether to attend is expected until Sunday.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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