The main Syrian opposition group voted on Saturday in favour of attending a coming peace conference aimed at ending the country’s bloody civil war, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year conflict.
The vote in Istanbul came as food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria’s capital for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by President Bashar Assad’s government ahead of the peace conference, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.
The Coalition was under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The Syrian government has already said it will attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.
The Coalition’s leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that they are heading to the conference “without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution and we will not be cheated by Assad’s regime.”
“The negotiating table for us is a track toward achieving the demands of the revolution at the top of them removing the butcher from power,” Mr. Jarba said.
But many Coalition members are hesitant to attend a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with powerful rebels on the ground, who reject the talks. Many members boycotted the Istanbul meetings that began on Friday, forcing the Coalition’s legal committee to approve the decision in a simple majority vote.
Although Islamic rebel groups reject any talk with the government, the head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, said in a statement that he backs “a solution that guarantees a political transition of power.”
Maj. Issam el-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Front, also said they back a political solution that would include Assad leaving power.
The Syrian National Coalition’s media office said that of 73 voters, 58 voted in favour of attending the conference. It added that 14 voted against attending the conference, two abstained and one simply turned in a blank ballot.
The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva 2, is to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government and eventual elections.
The U.S. and Russia have been trying to hold the peace conference since last year and it has been repeatedly delayed. Both sides finally agreed to sit together on the negotiations table after dropping some of their conditions.
One of the main demands of the opposition was that Mr. Assad agrees to step down before going to the conference. With his government troops keeping their momentum on the ground, Assad’s government has said he will not surrender power and may run again in elections due in mid-2014.
It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition since the country’s crisis began in March 2011. Activists say the fighting has killed more than 130,000 people while displacing millions.
The U.S. and France welcomed the Coalition’s vote.
“This is a courageous vote in the interests of all the Syrian people who have suffered so horribly under the brutality of the Assad regime and a civil war without end,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius applauded the vote in a statement as a “courageous choice, despite provocations and exactions of the regime.”
Meanwhile on Saturday, violence continued. The Observatory said a government air raid on the northern city of Aleppo killed 23 people.