Syrian opposition must agree on restructure before deciding to take part in Geneva talks
Divisions deepen within expatriate National Coalition over representation
Yara Abbas, a well-known Syrian state television reporter, was killed yesterday near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Other members of her crew were wounded by rebel sniper fire. Photograph: Reuters
The expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition yesterday failed to agree on a restructure and expansion of its governing body which it needed to do before addressing the issue of whether to attend the international conference on the country’s conflict.
Damascus has said it would, in principle, participate and named its team.
Coalition divisions deepened when a liberal bloc supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the West was granted token representation in the 60-member governing body which offered only eight seats to expand the inclusiveness of the opposition.
Veteran dissident Michel Kilo left the venue of the conference in Istanbul after stating: “We were talking about 25 names . . . then there was agreement on 22, and the number dropped to 20, to 18, 15 and five.” Addressing the committee, he said: “I do not think you have a desire to co-operate and to hold our extended hand . . . We wish you all the best.”
Although significant expansion was discussed throughout the day, it was opposed by the Qatari-backed bloc headed by Mustafa al-Sabbagh and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have dominated the coalition and its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, since their establishment.
Mr Kilo would have brought personal credibility as well as liberal independents to the coalition. He was an activist during the 2001 Damascus Spring when President Bashar al-Assad liberalised the economy and made a limited economic opening to trade with the West. He was also the prime mover of the 2005 Damascus Declaration which labelled the government as “authoritarian” and called for gradual reform.
In mid-May, Mr Kilo formed a new 250-member faction, the Union of Syrian Democrats, to counter the weight of the Brotherhood and Mr Sabbagh in the coalition and lobby for Syria to remain a “civil [secular] state” instead of becoming an “Islamic state.” Mr Kilo, a Christian Communist intellectual, opposes armed revolt and sectarianism and supports internal resolution of the conflict. He would have been the third domestic heavyweight in the coalition after vice-president Riad Seif, the first signatory of the Damascus Declaration, and Moaz Khatib, a preacher at the Omayyad Mosque in the capital who resigned as president because of external interference in coalition affairs.
Politicians debating in luxury hotels in Turkey appeared to be disconnected from the fierce fighting between rebels and the Syrian army. It was bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah movement around the strategic Syrian border town of Qusayr and air strikes on rebel positions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
Successes on the battlefield are seen by analysts as being driven by the government’s determination to improve its bargaining position during the Geneva conference.
Syrian state television reporter Yara Abbas was killed north of Qusayr, and other members of her crew were wounded by rebel sniper fire.
Opposition activists claimed that civilians were suffering from a chemical weapons attack in the rebel stronghold of Harasta near Damascus.
France’s Le Monde published first-hand accounts by its journalists of alleged chemical attacks by the military. UN inquiry team member Carla Del Ponte last month accused rebels of using chemical weapons.