BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian National Coalition’s decision on Thursday not to attend US-Russian sponsored talks with representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime has torpedoed the only plan for trying to end Syria’s two-year conflict that the international community had been able to agree on.
“The talk about the international conference and a political solution to the situation in Syria has no meaning in light of the massacres that are taking place,” a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Khalid Saleh, told reporters in Istanbul, where the opposition has been holding week-long deliberations on a strategy for the Geneva talks.
He said the group will not support any international peace efforts in light of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s “invasion” of Syria.
Saleh was referring to the increasingly prominent roles of Iran and the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group in backing Assad’s forces on the ground.
“The National Coalition will not participate in an international conference and will not support any efforts in light of Iran’s malicious invasion of Syria,” he added.
The opposition’s announcement came just a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the government would attend the planned peace conference in Geneva but laid out terms that made it difficult for the opposition to accept.
Al-Moallem said Assad will remain president at least until elections in 2014 and might seek another term, and that any deal reached in such talks would have to be put to a referendum.
Russian news agencies reported Thursday that US, Russian and UN diplomats will meet Wednesday in Geneva to discuss preparations for the Syria conference. The reports, citing an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry official, were published before the coalition announced it would skip the talks.
The US strategy has been to try to launch a dialogue between the regime and the opposition that would set a timetable for Assad’s removal, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “That policy is now in tatters,” he said.
In Syria, Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah fighters fought pockets of resistance in the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government controls most of Qusair following a fierce, 12-day battle with opposition forces.
Thursday’s sporadic clashes came as government troops were mopping up in northern and western parts of Qusair, said the Observatory, which relies on information from a network of activists on the ground.
The Syrian army on Wednesday took control of nearby Dabaa air base, dealing a major blow to the rebels in Qusair, an overwhelmingly Sunni town in western part of the country that has been controlled by the opposition since early last year.
The government launched an offensive on Qusair on May 19 and Hezbollah militants joined the battle, drawing the Lebanese Shiite group deep into the civil war next door.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-months-old Syrian conflict that has had increasingly sectarian overtones. Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority dominate the rebel ranks and Assad’s regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Both sides in the conflict value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two Assad’s strongholds, the capital of Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast that is the Alawite heartland. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
The Coalition on Thursday launched an urgent appeal for relief efforts to rescue what it said were over 1,000 wounded people in the Syrian town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
“It is not reasonable, it is not logical that people and civilians are getting killed minute by minute while the international community continues in a standstill,” Saleh said, speaking to reporters in English.