Syrian opposition group yields to pressure, votes to join peace talks
During the fractious weekend debates that ended with the main Syrian exile opposition coalition yielding to international pressure by dropping its refusal to hold peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's government, tensions ran so high that one prominent coalition member slapped another in the face, participants in the gathering said.
In the hallways outside the meeting at an Istanbul hotel, young anti-government activists exasperated with the coalition's failure to forge an effective opposition said they had grudgingly pressed the group to approve the peace talks, calling them the only hope to slow the killing of Syrians.
Stoking tensions all around, Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, told the activists on the sidelines that the emerging reality presented them with unpalatable options: accept that the current government could continue in power longer than they would like, or face the continued rise of extremist jihadist groups that had terrified residents and undermined Western support.
After two days of debate and under intense American, British and European pressure, the coalition voted early on Monday to attend peace talks sponsored by the United States and Russia in Geneva if certain conditions were met, including full access for delivery of humanitarian aid and the release of prisoners.
Although there were "hot debates", said Radwan Ziadeh, who leads the transitional justice commission in the interim government, "Geneva became an essential option because we're facing a stalemate between the Free Syrian Army and Assad".
Kamal Labwani, a member of the coalition, said the meeting had been so tense that the coalition president, Ahmed Jarba, had slapped a representative of the rebel Free Syrian Army.