International

Syrian opposition agrees to attend peace talks

Government leaders and opposition to meet for first time since conflict began in March 2011

Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba, left, listens to Secretary of State John Kerry during the start of their meeting in Paris on Jan. 13, 2014.

The main Syrian political opposition group in exile, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said on Saturday it had agreed to attend internationally sponsored peace talks beginning in Switzerland next week. 

The Geneva II talks with representatives from President Bashar al-Assad's government start on Wednesday and are seen as the most serious international effort yet to end the conflict. 

The talks 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, killing more than 100,000 people and displacing millions.

The aim of the Geneva II conference 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.

After a series of delays caused by internal disagreement, 58 Syrian National Coalition members voted to attend and 14 voted against, said the group's media office. Three members abstained. 

The coalition, based in Turkey, has little influence on the ground in Syria, where many rebels oppose the peace talks. 

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Its military arm, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), has been eclipsed by Islamist rebels and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters. It was not immediately clear whether the coalition's vote would be backed by a separate meeting, in Ankara, of Syrian rebel militias, who would be needed to implement any agreements made at peace talks. 

Syrian officials have pledged to attend the Jan. 22 Geneva II talks, though they dispute the invitation letter's focus on setting up a transitional authority, saying the priority is "to continue to fight terrorism" — a phrase they use to describe Assad's battle with increasingly radical rebels. 

One of the main demands of the opposition was that 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.

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.

Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have been battling for nearly three years in an attempt to overthrow Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam and makes up about 12 percent of Syria’s 23 million people. The conflict erupted in 2011 with a violent crackdown on peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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