Opposition Discusses Its Approach to Syria Talks

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ISTANBUL -- Members of Syria's main political opposition group on Thursday began three days of talks to elect a new leader and formulate their positions before an expected international conference in Geneva next month that is meant to pave the way for negotiations on a possible transitional government in Syria.

The meeting in Istanbul came a day after leading members of the group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and top foreign affairs officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, held an 11-country meeting in Amman, Jordan, on the deteriorating situation in Syria.

At the start of the talks in Istanbul, members of the opposition group expressed hesitation about attending the Geneva meeting, and they asked for clarification on what to expect before committing to it, while emphasizing that such talks might be futile unless President Bashar al-Assad is removed.

"We do not have too much illusion," said Ahmed Kamel, a member of the coalition. "We know the regime, we know Assad, and we know that he would never quit power without force."

Among world powers, Russia supports Mr. Assad's continued leadership, saying his presence would stabilize any transition. Members of the opposition group insist that he must not be a part of any future government.

"The international community says that they can remove Assad from power; so does the U.S.," Mr. Kamel said on the sidelines of discussions that were expected to last until midnight on Thursday. "We just need to stop massacres until then."

The opposition talks in Istanbul were also intended to choose the group's new president after the previous leader, Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, resigned amid political infighting in March.

At the start of the talks, Sheik Khatib put forward his own 16-step proposal for a political transition to a post-Assad government. Among other things, it would absolve all combatants involved in "legal military action" from prosecution and allow Mr. Assad and 500 people of his choosing, along with their families, to seek refuge in any country willing to welcome them.

Sheik Khatib's plan, published on his official Facebook page, would retain some members of the current government. Under it, Mr. Assad would hand power to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa or Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi within 30 days of accepting the plan.

Subsequent measures include dissolving Parliament and transferring legislative powers to an agreed-upon candidate to handle the transition. Sheik Khatib added that the current government would continue to govern for 100 days, restructure the security and military apparatus, and release political prisoners.

But it is not clear whether any other members of the opposition coalition will support the plan. "No one listened to him when he was still head of the coalition; why would they listen to him now?" said an activist contacted via Skype in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, who declined to give her name.

And it is unlikely to appeal to the rebels fighting Mr. Assad's army and its allies on the ground, who say they want Assad loyalists to pay for their actions.

Asi, an activist who works at a makeshift hospital in Qusayr, a Syrian town where clashes are raging between government forces and rebels, wrote on his Facebook page: "This pathetic nobody Moaz, the dangerous, is calling for Assad to leave with 500 individuals and wants to absolve soldiers. You donkey, you're going to be tried before Assad, God willing." (The word for "dangerous" in Arabic is similar to Sheik Khatib's surname.)

Even if the plan did win support, Mr. Assad himself has repeatedly stressed in televised interviews that he has no plans to leave Syria, and refuses to step down before presidential elections -- which he plans to enter -- are held in 2014.

Sheik Khatib portrayed his proposal as a response to ideas by Russia and the United States for a political solution, and a way to "prevent the decay of Syria, its people, its land, its economy."

About 80,000 Syrians have been killed in two years of conflict. The meeting in Amman also focused on increasing concern that the fighting in Syria may spill across the border with Lebanon and destabilize that country.

Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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