Opposition In Syria Stalls Peace Talks Decision

Syria's fractious opposition is struggling to reach a consensus on peace talks with the Assad government, ahead of an international conference next month in Geneva engineered by the U.S. and Russia. Members have been arguing over who should hold the reins of power within the coalition.

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OK. So that doctor told Steve a majority of Syrians love their country and are not picking sides in this conflict. One big concern about the country is the influx of weapons coming in - potentially more weapons after the European Union's decision Monday to lift its embargo on sending arms to Syrian rebel forces. In response to the EU, Russia now says it will say advanced air defense missiles to the Syrian government. All this is happening as the main Syrian opposition coalition is in Istanbul ahead of potential talks with the government next month. The international community is hopeful those talks will go forward but right now there appears to be a stalemate. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: World powers are pushing ahead on two fronts in the Syrian crisis. Moscow and Washington are pressing for June peace talks between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition leaders; while at the same time conditions are being set for a fresh flow of weapons into the conflict. With events swirling around them, members of the main Syrian opposition coalition have dragged a three-day meeting into a weeklong stalemate, with no decision yet on whether to attend talks with the government. The delegates spent much of the week arguing over who should hold the reins of power within the coalition. An Islamist bloc headed by Secretary General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, who has strong backing from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, has thus far resisted all attempts to add new liberal members, which could reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within the coalition. Several members of the coalition walked out in frustration and the talks dragged on so long that the group was kicked out of its hotel to make room for other guests. According to coalition members, Western diplomats, including U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, have grown increasingly frustrated with the coalition's inability to resolve any of the major issues on its agenda, from attending the talks to approving a government in exile to electing a new president. The heavy international pressure, meanwhile, has had its own impact.

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KENYON: Young activists charged into the meeting site, declaring that the coalition appears to be a puppet of Western and Arab powers and seems utterly indifferent to the suffering of the civilians inside Syria. While the opposition remains gridlocked, the tension is focusing on the military situation on the ground. After the EU lifted the arms embargo on Syrian rebels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said while his country has no immediate plans to send weapons, it could act quickly if it chooses to. The lifting of the embargo drew criticism from Russia, a backer of the Syrian regime. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the EU is pouring fuel on the fire of the Syrian conflict. Speaking in Moscow, Lavrov also defended Russia's decision to send advanced air defense missiles to the Syrian government. Through an interpreter, he said the missiles are purely defensive.

SERGEY LAVROV: (Through translator) We believe that these deliveries are a stabilizing factor and we think that such steps very much restrained some hot heads from an opportunity to transform this conflict into an international conflict with outside forces taking part.

KENYON: In a statement, the Syrian opposition said it's grateful to the EU for lifting the embargo and called for specialized weaponry to be sent immediately to the Free Syrian Army. The statement said what is urgently needed is a clear understanding of shared goals and objectives. At the moment, however, members of the Syrian opposition can't agree among themselves, let alone with the outside world. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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