Deep Differences Stall Talks Of Syrian Opposition Council

A three-day meeting to reshape and strengthen the main Syrian opposition coalition has instead dragged on for six days, and the main thing that has been strengthened is the coalition's reputation for in-fighting. The coalition is trying to expand its membership, ratify a government-in-exile, pick a new president, and decide whether to attend June talks with the Syrian government. Several members have threatened to bolt the coalition in protest, and pressure from outside players, including the U.S., Europe and Gulf Arab countries, has thus far merely intensified the coalition's polarization.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government forces aren't the only concern for Syria's rebels. The opposition coalition is struggling with deep - and perhaps irreconcilable - differences within its own ranks. Diplomats from the U.S., Europe and Arab states have converged on an opposition meeting in Istanbul, in what appears to be a last-ditch attempt to resolve some of those differences. If the effort fails, observers fear it will mean an end to efforts to convene direct talks between the opposition and Assad's government.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul, and he joins us now. And Peter, normally you'd expect foreign diplomats to keep a low profile when they're arm-twisting like this one is, but this group today marched right into the opposition meeting in Istanbul. Who are the diplomats, and what are they trying to achieve?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, it's a fairly high-powered cross-section from many of the countries who are backing the opposition. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is there; his French counterpart, Eric Chevalier; the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, showed up. You also have officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. And then you have the liberal opposition bloc leader Michel Kilo, who has been trying all week to get his bloc of 22 members to join this coalition - so far without success, except for a token - eight - number of them.

And as to what they hope to accomplish here, first on the agenda seemed to be staving off the train wreck that this meeting was threatening to become. Thus far, the various factions of the coalition are giving every appearance of caring more about their own share of power than their ability to represent the Syrian people. This sense that we've heard before - that the coalition is tone deaf to the suffering going on inside Syria - has probably never been greater. It seems clear that the immediate goal was to make some kind of progress on this question of talks with the government.

BLOCK: And I gather that after several hours with the diplomats, there were some signs that progress had been made on that question that you mentioned, about attending these talks. What do we know about that?

KENYON: Well, as the meeting broke up for dinner, we did confirm that there was a statement of principles on attending these so-called Geneva 2 talks. That statement calls for an immediate cease-fire; withdrawal of Hezbollah forces from Syria; the ability of Syrians to defend themselves - that, obviously, means receiving weapons. And the most important principle seems to be a deadline; that if they attend, there must be a deadline for an internationally guaranteed transition that involves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaving power. The opposition clearly fears the talks could drag on for some time, and they don't want that to happen. Now, this hardly guarantees the talks will take place. But it does seem to give these international diplomats some reason to move forward.

BLOCK: And Peter, hasn't the Assad government made it clear that that deadline that you're talking about would be a complete nonstarter for them?

KENYON: Complete nonstarter; the foreign minister has been out repeating that, even since this statement was announced. And Assad himself has said that he has every intention of running again in 2014, assuming the country is in any shape to hold elections.

BLOCK: Well, Peter, beyond the talks there in Istanbul, the Syrian opposition was supposed to elect a president; ratify an interim government; and add new members to the coalition, to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. What happened with that?

KENYON: Well, so far, nothing. And they may take another crack at this question of expanding the membership. But it seems, at the moment, that all of these other issues beyond the Geneva 2 talks may have to wait for a later meeting.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome.

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