ISTANBUL -- After a bitter debate and a walkout by more than a third of its members, Syria’s main exile opposition group voted Saturday to take part in negotiations with the government of President Bashar Assad that the U.N. is sponsoring next week in Switzerland.
Ahmed al Jarba, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition announced the decision in an emotional address in which he pledged not to betray the uprising that began 34 months ago and has turned into the bloodiest confrontation of the so-called Arab Spring. He promised that fighting would continue.
After “atrocities that are unprecedented in history,” the deaths of “200,000 Martyrs,” and with millions of Syrians forced to flee their homes, the opposition had decided to join the Geneva talks “to rid Syria of this criminal…to rid Syria of this tyranny,” he said.
“We will go to Geneva…with our heads held high,” he said, “not to bargain over the principles of the revolution,” adding that “We are not few in number, nor weak.”
But he made no mention of the guarantee that opposition leaders had sought to ensure that Assad would not be part of any transitional government.
Jarba, 44, also made no mention of a possible cease-fire, which the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran had sought to bring about before the talks begin Wednesday in Montreux, outside Geneva.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the vote “courageous” and pledged continued U.S. support for the Syrian opposition as they seek “a negotiated political transition.”
The United States will “continue to demand an end to the regime’s SCUD missiles, barrel bombs and horrific weapons used against civilians,” he said, but gave not the slightest hint that the U.S. would provide weapons to defend against such weapons.
He also said the U.S. “would keep pushing for improved humanitarian access, prisoner releases and the return of journalists and aid workers held hostage.”
The vote in the 120-member coalition was 58 to 14 with two abstentions and two spoiled ballots. Forty-four members had walked out Friday, saying they wouldn’t return to take part in a vote unless military commanders on the ground approved the decision.
With support from the Turkish government, leaders of major armed groups, including the recently formed Islamic Front and the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council, met for two days in Ankara. They apparently did not reach a decision when they broke Saturday afternoon but they were “more and more inclined” to agree to go, a Turkish official said.
Louay Safi, a spokesman for the coalition, said coalition members consulted with the military leaders and “there are statements of support.” He also said fighting forces would have a place on the delegation.
The head of the U.S.-supported Supreme Military Council, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, said his forces endorsed going to Geneva if it guarantees a transition of the political leadership and accomplished the goals of the revolution.
Idriss said the fighters on the ground have five demands. These are Assad’s removal from power, the removal of all security branches responsible for killing civilians and destroying the country, the creation of a transitional governing council with full powers, the release of all prisoners and the immediate opening of humanitarian corridors to all the besieged areas.
Turkish officials said the principal argument made to the military leaders to attend was that the absence of the opposition from Switzerland would hurt them in the eyes of world public opinion and leave the stage to the Syrian government.
Before the vote could be held, the coalition had to finesse its own bylaws, which stipulate that its leadership would not negotiate with the Syrian government. Amending the bylaws would have required a two-thirds vote of the entire membership, which was impossible because of Friday’s walkout. Instead, the group’s legal committee ruled that a majority vote would suffice though it was not clear how the committee reached that conclusion.