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Syria opposition say regional power games stall meeting

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Regional bids for influence over Syria's divided opposition have stalled progress at a key meeting of the war-torn country's main opposition group, blocking discussions on whether to hold peace talks with the regime, opposition members told AFP Saturday.

The Syrian National Coalition is supposed to decide during its three-day meeting in Istanbul whether to accept a proposal from the United States and Russia to participate in a peace conference aimed at ending the raging civil war, which in two years has killed more than 90,000 people.

But opposition figures say the meeting has not been able to tackle that question because demands from foreign countries to expand the number of members in the Coalition has divided the group and blocked progress on the rest of the agenda.

"You have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushing to include up to 30 new members in the National Coalition. Their goal is to downsize the Muslim Brotherhood's influence over the group," a Coalition member said on condition of anonymity.

"On the other hand you have Turkey, Qatar and to an extent France backing the Coalition as it stands," he added, describing perceptions that Islamists control the Coalition as "exaggerated".

Referring to Saudi Arabia and the United States, another Coalition member told AFP: "We are being threatened that they will not give us any money or even weapons, and even that (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad will stay in power if we don't allow this expansion.

"This is scandalous. This competition for power is killing the Syrian opposition," he said on condition of anonymity.

Russia, a key backer of Assad, said Friday the regime had agreed "in principle" to attend the proposed peace conference. But the Coalition expressed scepticism, saying it wanted to hear from the Syrian government itself.

Some rebel leaders have said that no negotiations are possible with Assad remaining in power. The Damascus government counters that it wants assurances that the president's role will not be a subject of debate at any peace talks.

The Coalition, which depends on foreign backing, has long been marred by regional rivalries that play out through disagreements among its members.

Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, while conservative Saudi Arabia is seeking to reclaim its historic role of regional powerhouse, opposition figures say.

The National Coalition began its meeting Thursday with four thorny items on the agenda.

It must decide how to expand the group and choose a new president to replace Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who resigned in March.

It must also discuss the US-Russian peace conference, dubbed "Geneva 2", and decide the fate of a new interim government.

But by Saturday, despite countless hours of official and sideline meetings, members were still deadlocked over whether or not to expand the group.

Though several lists of some 200 dissidents' names have been proposed, the one with the strongest backing is a 25-member list proposed by veteran secular dissident Michel Kilo.

Dissidents say Saudi Arabia and its ally the United States want Kilo's list to join the group.

The list reportedly includes several women as well as members of Syria's numerous ethnic and religious minorities.

The Coalition has long been accused by Syrian opponents of having a poor record of inclusiveness.

"We definitely need to include more women. Right now, only three of our members are women, and that is not right," said Coalition member Samir Nashar.

"Of course we need to expand. But the regional fights for influence and over who gets to go to Geneva 2 is the real issue here," said one of the Coalition members who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Coalition in its current shape is dominated by main opposition bloc the Syrian National Council, in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a key role.

"If Kilo's list gets accepted, then it will dominate the Coalition. The reason for this deadlock is because everyone wants to call the shots when the Geneva 2 negotiations start," said a dissident from northern Syria who is not a member of the Coalition.

He described the infighting as a "reflection of what is happening in Syria now, a sectarian war. It is a war for dominance now between the Sunni majority and the minorities."

Asked why conservative Saudi Arabia was supporting a more liberal list, he said: "They don't care about ideology. They're just looking for a way to exert influence."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130525/syria-opposition-say-regional-power-games-stall-meeting