Syria's Main Opposition Agrees To Peace Talks

The Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed opposition group, agreed Friday to attend this week's peace talks in Switzerland. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with reporter Deborah Amos about what led to the decision, and whether the talks might help resolve a raging three-year conflict.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In a close vote, Syria's political opposition agreed to attend peace talks this week in Switzerland. The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the decision as courageous. The vote clears the way for the first face-to-face negotiations in a war that has devastated Syria and destabilized the region. NPR's Deborah Amos has been following the latest developments from Beirut. Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, this vote came after a lot of heated debate, I understand. And at the last minute, Western and Arab backers of Syria's opposition brought enormous pressure to bear. So, who does this delegation represent?

AMOS: There was enormous wrangling and it passed by less than a majority. Some of the opposition coalition boycotted the meeting. Others resigned. So, it could be portrayed as a majority. But the coalition had little choice. They would have lost the support of their Western backers if they didn't go. Now, the opposition is weary of these negotiations 'cause they worry it's going to be this long drawn-out process that keeps President Bashar al-Assad in power. So, the coalition has to get something worth having in these talks or they lose what little relevance they have. Now, Western diplomats say it's essential that the armed groups go to Geneva. These are the people actually fighting the regime on the ground and be part of the delegation. The opposition put out a statement yesterday that three rebel groups have said yes to the talks.

MARTIN: So, is that a surprise? I mean, as you mentioned, the rebels are the most powerful group in the opposition. They're the ones on the ground doing the fighting.

AMOS: It is. Some of the moderate groups have said yes, including the Free Syrian Army. This morning, other key rebels denied those reports. There have been meetings with rebels in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Parallel meetings with this opposition vote. One Western diplomat told me that this is a new development. What you saw was the Turks, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - these are the Gulf States that are arming the rebels - working to convince rebels to join the negotiations with both carrots and sticks. The stick was the Turks said we will close the border if you don't go. The carrot was you can be within the delegation. They're considering the offer. Their problem, to the rebels, is they are in a huge fight with an al-Qaida-affiliated group on the border. They can't afford to split their ranks. They are all united to fight al-Qaida. And this is a distraction, the negotiations in Geneva.

MARTIN: But as I understand this, Deb, previously, the opposition as a whole said they would not attend the talks unless it was agreed that Assad would not be part of any transitional government. So, was that resolved?

AMOS: No. They had to let that go. Now, this conference is to form a transitional government. But the regime comes to the talks in a very strong position, both militarily and politically. They have strong backing from the Russians - that's one of the cohosts of the meeting - they have backing from the Iranians that have helped them, have military clout inside Syria. And just today, the regime allowed a convoy of aid into a Palestinian camp in Damascus that's been besieged for months. This is a place where some 40 people died due to lack of food and medicine. So, the regime is offering cease-fires in rebel-held areas. The idea, say analysts here, is we can solve problems that we created and to say we don't need international monitors or pressure and you need us to make this thing work. Now, the U.S. and other allies of the opposition are going to Geneva to make a transitional government but Damascus has said we are not giving up any power. So, the idea that there can be some progress in these talks in Switzerland, not so much.

MARTIN: NPR's Deb Amos reporting from Beirut. Thanks so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

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