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Syrian opposition divided amid international peace bid

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

International efforts to end the unrest in Syria accelerate Monday with key talks in Paris and Brussels, amid a push for a new peace conference despite growing divisions within the Syrian opposition.

US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian and French counterparts in Paris to advance an initiative for an international conference on ending Syria's conflict.

However Syria's main opposition group ended a fourth day of talks in Beirut Sunday with little sign of a joint approach to the Russian-US campaign to get all sides to participate.

The talks have been dubbed "Geneva 2" as they would follow a conference last June that produced a peace roadmap which failed to win support, triggering the resignation of Kofi Annan as special envoy on Syria.

Ahead of Monday's Paris meeting, the 27 EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels with the bloc deeply divided over whether to arm the Syrian rebels.

After months of bitter argument in Brussels, the issue will come to a head with the ministers to meet ahead of the expiry at midnight Friday of far-reaching EU sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime including a weapons embargo.

Britain and France are leading the push to have the arms embargo maintained against Assad but relaxed against the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

But British-based charity Oxfam has warned that allowing more weapons into Syria "could have devastating consequences" and "fan the flames of the conflict".

The efforts to restore peace in Damascus come as Syria's leading opposition group was in total disarray at fractious talks in Istanbul, with discussions on their participation in the US-Russian peace initiative stalled.

There was squabbling over a vote early Monday on expanding the opposition umbrella group, although the results formalised the entry into the Coalition of veteran dissident and Marxist intellectual Michel Kilo.

Tough the secular Kilo would bring in several new women and members of Syria's religious minorities, critics said his entry would shrink the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and force Saudi control on the coalition.

Syria's foreign minister upped the ante on Sunday, saying his government will take part in a new Geneva peace conference, terming it a "good opportunity for a political solution" to the civil war in Syria.

With the violence in Syria spreading, Walid Muallem said his government had agreed "in principle" to attend the Geneva peace conference Washington and Moscow are hoping to hold next month.

The opposition's long-standing position is that, after more than two years of devastating conflict which has killed more than 94,000 people, it will not negotiate until Assad agrees to leave.

Recognised by dozens of states and organisations as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the opposition Coalition is marred by division which some members blame on competing regional bids for influence.

Forging a united position on the proposed peace talks in Geneva is all the more urgent given military setbacks on the ground, with the Syrian regime receiving help from the Hezbollah.

Two rockets hit Hezbollah's heartland in Beirut on Sunday as the Lebanese Shiite group battled alongside the Syrian regime forces.

Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah said it was in the militant anti-Israeli group's own interest to defend al-Assad's regime.

"I have always promised you a victory and now I pledge to you a new one" in Syria, he said.

Hours later, two Grad rockets slammed into Al-Shayyah area of southern Beirut, a security source said, wounding four Syrian workers at a car dealership.

It was the first time the Lebanese capital's mainly Shiite southern suburbs have been targeted during the more than two-year-old conflict in Syria.

Hezbollah's intervention has given Assad the upper hand in Qusayr, a strategic central town which provides an important rebel supply line from Lebanon and serves as a link to Assad's Alawite heartland.

Syrian forces launched an assault on Qusayr a week ago but are still being fiercely resisted.

On Sunday a source close to Hezbollah said pro-Assad forces had taken control of 80 percent of Qusayr.

During the past week, 31 people have been killed in clashes in Lebanon's northern port of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syria's regime.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130527/syrian-opposition-divided-amid-international-peace-bid