Western leaders hail Syrian rebels' decision to attend peace talks

Decisionof deeply divided coalition to attend meeting in Switzerland called 'courageous' but its leader maintains sole aim is to topple Assad

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 10:44pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 10:44pm


Western leaders have hailed a decision by Syria's opposition to attend an international peace conference this week alongside representatives of a regime they despise and remain determined to overthrow.

After weeks of hesitation and threats to boycott the talks, the deeply divided National Coalition said it would go to Switzerland, with the sole aim of toppling President Bashar al-Assad. Assad's government, which brands the rebels fighting his regime terrorists, made concessions ahead of the conference, which opens on Wednesday, but said the president would not step down.

These diametrically opposed positions cast a shadow over the so-called Geneva II conference aimed at setting up a transitional government to lead Syria out of a nearly three-year war estimated to have killed more than 130,00 people and forced millions from their homes.

The [talks are] aimed at … stripping the butcher [Assad] of all his powers

US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the "courageous" decision by the National Coalition to attend the conference, describing it as a "path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians".

"We all know that the process ahead will be difficult, but I say directly to the Syrian people: we will stand by you every mile of the journey as you seek to achieve the freedom and dignity that all Syrians deserve," Kerry added.

Britain, France and Germany were equally elated with the opposition's decision to overcome their internal divisions and go to Switzerland.

The coalition voted on Saturday by 58 to 14 with three abstaining to attend the peace conference, but the rest of the about 120 delegates did not take part in the secret ballot - a sign that strong disagreement persists.

Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said the group was going to Switzerland only for the purpose of removing the "butcher" Assad from power.

"The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution ... and first and foremost stripping the butcher [Assad] of all his powers," he said.

The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Selim Idriss, called for a "peaceful resolution" to the Syria war, and urged the opposition to work to end Assad's 14-year grip on power in the country.

Idriss said the "goals of the revolution" must be upheld, and that Assad's cronies should also have no future role in Syria.

The FSA, the armed wing of the coalition, is the main rebel group in Syria, but it has been greatly marginalised by the emergence of jihadist fighters linked to al-Qaeda.

Coalition member Munzer Aqbiq said the opposition would form a delegation within 24 hours and that it would be made up of diplomats, politicians, FSA representatives and legal experts.

The coalition has been under intense pressure from its Western and Arab backers to attend the peace conference, and its "yes" vote was also hailed in Britain, France and Germany.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called it a difficult decision, while his German counterpart said it provided a "small glimmer of hope" for Syria's people. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was a "courageous choice".

Assad's government offered concessions ahead of the conference, including a prisoner swap and a security plan for the battered northern city of Aleppo.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus was determined to ensure the talks were a success, and sent a letter to the United Nations saying that the conference is about getting rid of extremists.

Kerry dismissed the concessions, saying "nobody is going to be fooled".