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Syrian National Coalition threatened by internal rift

Opposition activists inside Syria accuse the coalition of undermining the revolt and failing to provide united leadership, as Assad forces advance further into Qusayr. Phil Sands reports

ISTANBUL //A crisis plaguing the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) deepened yesterday, when opposition activists inside Syria accused it of undermining the revolt and failing to provide united leadership.

The stinging public rebuke came as forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad advanced further into the town of Qusayr and the US denied it was stepping up planning to implement a no-fly zone.

Out-numbered and out-gunned, Rebels have held on against regime troops, backed by Shiite fighters from Hizbollah, in the battle for Qusayr, near the Lebanon/Syria border, for more than a week.

The fight to gain control of the town seems to be nearing its end, with both Hizbollah and the elite Republican Guard dispatching reinforcements there yesterday, according to reports.

Marking what seems to be increasing confidence within the Syrian regime, foreign minister, Walid Moallem, yesterday said Mr Al Assad would remain in power until at least the next set of presidential elections, scheduled for the summer of 2014.

In a television interview, he also said the regime would take part in Geneva 2 without preconditions and in good faith.

In contrast, the SNC, meeting in Istanbul, finally agree a statement of principles over its participation in the "Geneva 2 peace" talks, outlining a series of conditions.

Those included a demand that Mr Al Assad and top regime security officials cannot be part of any peaceful settlement, and that a clear, internationally guaranteed timeframe for a transition of power.

They also demanded Hizbollah and Iran withdraw their forces from Syria.

If it sticks to those terms, it has effectively ruled out participation in proposed Geneva 2 talks, despite huge international pressure to take part.What was supposed to be a three-day summit to agree on expanding membership, electing a new leader, finalising a transitional government and responding to the Geneva 2 diplomatic proposals has, instead, become a six-day internal battle, laying bare serious divisions within the SNC, highlighting its disorganisation and bringing it to the brink of collapse.

Senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey made unscheduled interventions in the SNC's meeting yesterday, in an effort to salvage some kind of agreement, although it may have come too late.

In yesterday's statement, issued by grassroots opposition activists, the SNC's lack of real support inside Syria was also embarrassingly underlined - with the coalition's proposed expansion to include a liberal, non-Islamist bloc headed by secular dissident Michel Kilo dismissed as "feeble" .

"There is no doubt that the [SNC's] leadership has failed to fulfill its responsibility to represent the great Syrian people's revolution at the organisational, political, and humanitarian levels," the statement said.

It was signed by the Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators' Union and the Supreme Council for the Leadership of the Syrian Revolution - networks of anti-regime activists operating inside the country at great personal risk.

The groups called for a major overhaul of the SNC, demanding that 50 per cent of its members and senior leadership posts should be drawn from among grassroots groups working in Syria.

That is a significant step beyond what the SNC was under such huge international pressure to consider - a 30 per cent increase in members, drawn from Mr Kilo's group.

Refusal to give 50 per cent of seats to the activists networks would result in them withdrawing their recognition of the SNC as their representatives on the world stage, the statement said.

"None of the people they were talking about adding to the SNC, including Michael Kilo, represent us, they are not active on the ground, they do not hold influence inside Syria and they have nothing to add," said an activist in Damascus, involved in organising opposition humanitarian aid.

Meeting in five-star Istanbul hotels, the SNC appears to little understanding the magnitude of the crisis it is facing or the urgent need to overcome it, with a worsening conflict that has already killed more than 94,000 people and that threatens to spread throughout the Middle East.

Even if the SNC was to expand, some western diplomats have expressed fears it would only exacerbate problems, making an already unwieldy and fractured organisation weaker.

The planned UN-backed Geneva 2 peace conference, being pushed by Russia and the US as potential way to end the war, is expected to take place in mid-June, although no firm date has been set.

If the talks do take place, there is little expectation of a breakthrough, with president Mr Al Assad unwilling to step down and rebel groups not prepared to accept the continuation of his family's 43-year rule.

Syria's opposition coalition said yesterday it would only take part in a planned peace conference in Geneva if a deadline was set for an internationally guaranteed settlement based on Bashar Al Assad leaving power.

In Geneva, yesterday, the US, Turkey and Qatar pushed through a UN resolution demanding a probe into the fighting around the Syrian town of Qusayr, near Lebanon, and condemnation of foreign fighters supporting Mr Al Assad. The resolution approved by a vote of 36-1 in the UN Human Rights Council calls for urgent investigation into alleged abuses by government forces and Hizbollah fighters in Qusayr, along with more aid access and civilian protections.

The Shiite militant group, based in Lebanon has, together with Iran, provided Mr Al Assad crucial support during heavy fighting in key areas of the country, including the on-going battle for Qusayr.

Hizbollah's involvement on behalf of Mr Al Assad brought promises of retaliation from Syrian rebels, who have threatened to hit the group inside Lebanon.

Gen Salam Idriss - who at least on paper commands the rebel Free Syrian Army - gave a 24 hour ultimatum for the Lebanese militants to pull out of Syria or face attacks.

That threat evidently had no effect, with Hizbollah yesterday reinforcing its fighters in Qusayr, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also reported Mr Al Assad dispatching the ultra-loyalist Republic guard to the battle.


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Updated: May 30, 2013 04:00 AM

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