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Syria's paralysed opposition makes no progress on peace talks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A week into marathon talks aimed at presenting a united front on a proposed peace conference, Syria's opposition remains more divided than ever, pulled apart by regional power grabs and unpopular with rebels on the ground.

Despite going into several days of overtime at a key meeting in Istanbul, the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition, has failed to agree on a whether to join a proposed peace conference aimed at ending a more than two-year civil war that has cost some 94,000 lives.

Coalition members and other dissidents say progress at the meeting has been ground to a halt by conflicting bids for influence by Saudi Arabia, which wants to water down the Muslim Brotherhood's strong role in the Coalition, and Qatar, which wants to protect the influential Islamic movement's clout.

Amid the bickering, the Coalition has failed to find consensus on whether to join the proposed peace conference in Geneva being pushed by the United States and Russia.

"It is impossible, there will never be an agreement. Each Coalition member is a piece on a chess board, playing for the state that backs him," said a dissident who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

The main backer of the Coalition as it stands is Gulf state Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation outlawed in Syria that is nevertheless its best-organised opposition group.

Conservative Saudi Arabia, which supports more radical rebel groups on the ground and wants to downsize the Brotherhood's influence, has pushed the Coalition to accept new members.

"Saudi's pressure is enormous. It wants to control the Coalition. It is threatening to cut off the weapons supply to rebels" in the key central Syrian city of Homs, said a Coalition member.

Saudi Arabia is sending a new high-level delegation to Istanbul Tuesday to increase pressure on the dissidents, a Coalition member told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Saudi "princes are coming to the hotel. I cannot tell you who they are, but I can say they are more influential than the foreign ministry itself," the member said.

"We are under siege."

Analysts say the majority of weapons flowing into Syria have come from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in competing bids for influence.

The Istanbul meeting was aimed at reaching a decision on the proposed Geneva conference, choosing a new Coalition president, agreeing on an interim government and voting in new members to join the group.

The Coalition's paralysis has raised concerns in the West that it cannot be trusted with increased military support.

While the European Union on Monday lifted an arms embargo on Syria to allow weapons to be channelled to the rebels, no member state plans to send any arms immediately for fear of endangering the prospects of the Geneva peace conference -- which Washington and Moscow are trying to convene as early as next month.

A French official in Paris stressed that "this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1".

Coalition officials have insisted the group cannot make a decision on the Geneva conference without more details on what the talks would bring.

They insist that any negotiation with Assad's regime must lead to his fall.

The Coalition's spokesman Louay Safi denounced the EU decision as "too little, too late", and demanded a clear stance against Assad's regime.

"The Syrian people are disappointed. They thought that democracies care about those who seek democracy," he told AFP Monday.

But Syrian activists on the sidelines of the meeting said the onus was on the Coalition to make a breakthrough.

"No one inside Syria cares whether the Coalition expands or not. They need to reach an agreement. These opponents are corrupt. They are following agendas imposed on them by states, not people," said Alaa, a 23-year-old activist who spent two months in a regime jail.

"If any of these Coalition members had a family member who was dead or injured, they would have reached a solution by now," said Ragheb from Homs in central Syria, whose 24-year-old brother was seriously wounded by a missile attack.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130528/syrias-paralysed-opposition-makes-no-progress-peace-talks