With caveat, Syrian opposition says it will talk peace

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BEIRUT -- Syria's main opposition coalition said Monday that it is willing to attend peace talks slated for later this year but laid out conditions that are likely to remain major stumbling blocks to bringing both sides to the table.

Although the Syrian Opposition Coalition's announcement was hailed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as an important step, one of its demands is that President Bashar Assad not play any role in a transitional government. That remains starkly at odds with the Syrian government's position, which rejects any preconditions.

The United States, United Nations and Russia have been pushing for negotiations for months, but progress has been slow and diplomats are scrambling to bring together the Geneva talks, first slated for early this past summer, by the end of the year.

The coalition also demanded the release of political prisoners and the easing of tight blockades on rebel-held areas.

The substance of the statement, voted on early Monday by a majority of the fractious body, is not new but gives the opposition an official and unified position ahead of talks, relieving pressure from the international community.

The announcement does mark a slight softening from last month, when coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba said the group would boycott if Iran attended or if there was no specific time frame for Assad to leave.

The opposition had shown some reluctance to commit to the talks, angered by a lack of U.S. military support for rebels and the Obama administration's decision to hold off on punitive strikes that it initially pledged after the Aug. 21 chemical attack. The coalition also complained that the agreement for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons only distracts the international community as Assad continues to employ the conventional arms, missiles and air power that has killed the vast majority of the more than 100,000 war dead.

Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Mr. Kerry hailed the opposition decision as a "big step forward and an important one," The Associated Press reported. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that in light of the statement, he would put forward a proposal to the British Parliament to increase support to the opposition through medical, logistical and communication equipment for the Syrian opposition ahead of talks.

However, disagreements between the two sides over Assad's role in a transition appear irreconcilable.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said last week that the government will not go to Geneva with the intention of handing over power or forming a transitional governing body, and that Assad would remain head of state, according to state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. Assad has hinted that he might run for re-election in 2014.

He has also repeatedly stressed that he will not negotiate with "terrorists," which is how the government describes any armed opposition.



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