ISTANBUL — The main, Western-backed Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending a 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, Damascus, 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 Syrian National 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, near Geneva. The Syrian government has said it will attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.
The coalition’s leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said late Saturday that members are heading to the conference “without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution, and we will not be cheated by Assad’s regime.”
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“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,” al-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 Friday, forcing the coalition’s legal committee to approve the decision in a simple majority vote.
Although Islamic rebel groups reject any talks 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.”
He called upon coalition officials to demand that Assad and his top officials leave power, have no role in Syria’s future and set up a transitional government “with full powers” that include control of security agencies and open corridors to allow food into besieged areas.
Maj. Issam el-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Front, also said it backs a political solution that would include Assad leaving power.
The coalition’s media office said there were 58 votes in favor of attending the conference and 14 votes against. It added that there were two abstentions and one blank ballot. The vote happened after a walkout by more than one-third of the coalition’s members.
The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva 2, is to agree on a road map for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes creation of a transitional government and eventual elections.
The U.S. and Russia have been trying to hold the peace conference since last year, but it has been repeatedly delayed. Both sides finally agreed to sit together at the negotiations table after dropping some of their conditions.
One of the main demands of the opposition was that Assad agree to step down before the conference. With his 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 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.