Syrian opposition resumes tough talks on unity- UPDATED

Syrian National Coalition, which began its third day of meetings on Saturday, had agreed to focus on international demands for a broadening of the coalition.

Syrian opposition resumes tough talks on unity- UPDATED

World Bulletin / News Desk

Syria's opposition resumed talks on Saturday aimed at closing their fractious ranks, crucial to launching an international peace conference, and government forces pressed an onslaught on a rebel-held town to try to gain the upper hand in civil war.

Failure of the opposition to unite could weaken the hand of conference co-sponsors Russia and the United States in ending Syria's conflict, which has killed 80,000 people, threatens to spill across borders and whip up wider sectarian conflict.

The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers are to meet in Paris on Monday 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.

As opposition leaders met, Assad's forces reinforced by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters unleashed heavy artillery and tank fire to try to wrest back more rebel terrain in the border town of Qusair on Saturday, sources on both sides said.

More than 22 people in opposition-held areas were killed by Saturday afternoon, most of them rebels, and dozens were wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Assad's forces are believed to have seized about two-thirds of Qusair and largely surrounded the rebels. But the price was high and rebels insisted they were preventing further advances.

The insurgents see Qusair as a critical battle to preserve cross-border supply lines and deny Assad a victory they fear may give him the edge in in the prospective peace talks next month.

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

Saudi Arabia, the sources said, will want to see the Geneva conference, which could convene in the next few weeks, put the exit of 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 international community is walking a little faster than the opposition. It wants to see a complete list of participants from the Syrian side for Geneva and this means that the coalition has to sort its affairs," a European diplomat said.

While the opposition remained wracked by differences, a major assault by Assad's forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies on a Sunni town held by rebels near the border with Lebanon over the past week was shaping into a pivotal battle.

Saturday marked the 13th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon after 22 years of occupation, and Nasrallah was due to address supporters to celebrate the occasion.

His comments were being closely watched following rare criticism of Hezbollah on Friday from Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, who warned it against its intervention in Syria urging it to confine its activities to defence against Israel.

Anti-regime demonstrators across Syria denounced the Hezbollah chief on Friday, waving placards reading "Nasrallah, impostor of the resistance," and "Homs is not Jerusalem," a reference to the Syrian central province in which Qusayr lies.

Russia said the Syrian government had agreed in principle to attend the planned peace conference, which could take part in Geneva in the coming weeks.

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

"We are faced with a situation where everyone thinks there will be a marriage when the bride is refusing. The regime has to show a minimum of will that it is ready to stop the bloodshed," said Haitham al-Maleh, an elder statesman of the coalition.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 25 Mayıs 2013, 17:11

Muhammed Öylek