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 this 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.”