CAIRO — The main Syrian political opposition group has voted to attend United Nations-sponsored peace talks taking place January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland.
The Syrian National Coalition's media office says 58 of 73 coalition voters have supported attending the so-called Geneva II talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government. Another 44 who had initially attended the session had withdrawn and did not vote.
The decision to attend the conference, which is aimed at forming a transitional government, follows intense pressure and lobbying by the United States and other Western supporters.
Many opposition leaders have refused to attend talks without a prior commitment that Assad step down.
Addressing supporters in Istanbul, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, who called Assad a criminal, said his group would attend the conference.
"The Assad regime has committed atrocities against both Syria's minorities and its majority, using al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Iran as his mercenaries to remain in power," he said, adding that all of the opposition's demands must be met, including Assad's removal and ultimate prosecution.
On Friday, top opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said his group has not changed its key demand about wanting to see the embattled Syrian president gone, saying the opposition will leave talks unless discussions focus specifically on the regime's removal.
The Syrian government considers all rebel forces to be terrorists, and has tried to shift the focus of peace talks from formation of a new government to fighting extremism.
Damascus officials also say they have given Russia plans for a cease-fire in Syria's largest city of Aleppo and exchange of prisoners with Syrian rebels.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said during a Friday visit to Moscow that he had turned over the proposals in preparation for the upcoming peace talks.
According to Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi of London-based Chatham House, the opposition decision to attend “cannot be taken lightly,” as Russian and U.S. demands are not clear and it “seems like they're asking them to talk with Mr. Assad.”
Apparent divisions within the opposition, he added, are a healthy sign rather than a fundamental flaw.
“I think what people are seeing as fragmentation, division and lack of unity and coherence in the opposition is a very healthy phenomenon and should be seen as a sign of what a future democratic Syria should and would look like after Assad,” said Shehadi.
Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the U.S.-based Hoover Institution, a conservative public policy think tank, argues that the opposition faces a dilemma, as these peace talks are emerging at time when "Assad and his allies are winning, or have won, or have prevailed."
"For the opposition, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Ajami. "If you go to [the peace talks], you're pretty much going to accept the defeat of this rebellion. If you don't go to [the peace talks], then you risk the wrath of the powers and you seem like a surly, rebellious group.”
A communique from the first Geneva meeting on Syria referred to a “transition” that the opposition and its Western backers have interpreted to mean Assad's departure. However, the Syrian president and his Russian and Iranian allies disagree, insisting Assad must be part of any transition.
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria and assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy told VOA that the opposition remains "deeply suspicious of the Assad regime's intention to prolong the talks and divert them to other issues, other than a transitional regime in which Assad would have no role."
Murphy notes that the Assad government has offered to "enter into local cease-fires and exchange prisoners." He says the rebels are "afraid that such a program will be attractive to foreign powers and further build Assad's image as the power with which the world should deal." He adds that the Syrian regime is "replaying its favorite theme that outsiders must recognize the need to cooperate with [it] in a joint struggle against international terror."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who welcomed Saturday's vote as "a path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians," said Friday he would not allow Assad to focus talks on topics such as fighting extremism, which Assad says he is doing in the civil war. Kerry also said the United States is not out of options to pressure his government to comply with the goals set in the first Geneva conference.
Foreign ministers from several countries are due to gather in Montreux on Wednesday for the formal conference. Then the Syrian parties will move to the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva for what are scheduled to be direct talks with U.N. and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.