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Syrian National Coalition  logoThe main Syrian exile opposition coalition voted Monday to attend peace talks sponsored by Russia and the U.S. in Geneva if certain conditions are met, but it was unclear how the decision would affect the diplomatic efforts to resolve Syria’s civil war because some of the coalition’s central demands remain at odds with the Syrian government’s terms.

A statement from the coalition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, appeared to drop the group’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down before talks could be held. But the coalition continued to insist that it would participate only if there were guarantees that Mr. al-Assad and “those with blood on their hands” would have “no role” in a transitional government or in Syria’s future, a condition that the government has strongly resisted.

Members of the coalition said the vote came under duress, with heavy pressure from U.S. and British diplomats. The group continued to meet in Istanbul for an unscheduled third day of meetings, so there remained a possibility that a refined or altered statement would be issued.

Independent analysts monitoring the conflict said that while a political transition could end with Mr. al-Assad leaving office, perhaps by declining to run for re-election, it was increasingly unrealistic to expect it to begin that way. The analysts said that the United States and its allies should broaden their contacts with Mr. al-Assad’s government and with his supporters and opponents, to search for alternate frameworks for reaching an agreement as the Geneva peace process struggles and to seek avenues for compromise among those doing the fighting on the ground.

The coalition also said it would participate in the Geneva talks only if safe corridors were established beforehand for the delivery of humanitarian aid and political prisoners were released.

“The coalition also requires that prior to the conference, aid convoys from the Red Cross and Red Crescent and other aid groups be granted continued access to besieged areas,” it said in its statement, demanding “the release of detainees, especially women and children.”

Those measures have been suggested by some Syrian rebels on the ground. In recent weeks, some rebels have attempted to reach local ceasefires in blockaded areas around Damascus to allow civilians to exit, with mixed results. The coalition said it would consult fighters inside the country in an effort to win support for attending the Geneva talks. Many insurgent groups have dismissed any participation in the talks as treason, while a few have said that they are willing to seek a deal to alleviate the country’s suffering. But both groups place little faith in the coalition, which they see as disconnected from the situation in Syria.

Inside Syria, a growing number of people on both sides of the conflict complain that nobody seems to represent their desire to end the war and the humanitarian suffering it has created, with nine million people displaced from their homes and more than 100,000 dead.

Few express much hope the Geneva process will yield a solution, yet it remains the focus of international diplomacy and alternative efforts are in their infancy, with various attempts under way to jump-start informal talks that could explore the basis for a deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the coalition vote “a big step forward and a significant one” but did not immediately address how the outstanding conflicting demands would be resolved. The U.S. and Russia had hoped to set a date before the end of the year for the conference, but people familiar with the diplomacy say no meeting is likely until early 2014, if then.

The Globe and Mail

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