With less than two weeks to go before what is hoped will be the
first peace talks between the opposition and Assad's government,
disparate opposition groups met for the first time in the Spanish
city of Cordoba. They agreed to work together but did not agree who,
if any of them, should attend the peace talks.
Nearly three years into a conflict that has driven a quarter of
Syrians from their homes and killed more than 130,000 people, the
opposition to Assad is fragmenting.
In rebel-held areas, other groups have turned against the al
Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which aims to
construct an Islamist caliphate straddling the border separating
Syria and Iraq.
In a coordinated offensive, rival armed groups have seized several
ISIL strongholds in Aleppo, on the border with Turkey, and further
east in Raqqa, the only city fully under control of Assad's foes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIL fighters pushed
back the rival rebels on the eastern approaches of Raqqa on Friday.
They also killed 20 fighters in the town of al-Bab, northeast of
Aleppo, the UK-based monitoring group said.
Prospects for progress at the peace talks in Switzerland appear dim.
Assad, buttressed by recent military gains and the worst rebel
infighting since the civil war began, has ruled out demands from the
weakened opposition that he stand aside.
Most rebels are opposed to the negotiations, known as Geneva 2, and
the main opposition group in exile, the National Coalition, has
delayed a final decision on whether to attend the talks until just
days before their January 22 start date.
Members of the Coalition met for the first time on Friday with
members of the Damascus-based opposition tolerated by Assad.
Islamist rebel figures were also present at the meeting in Cordoba,
part of an effort by Western backers to unify the opposition ahead
of the Geneva talks.
The various groups agreed to set up a committee to coordinate
Assad's opponents but did not reach conclusions about whether to
attend the peace talks. Their final communique repeated the demand
Assad be excluded from any transition. Major Islamist and internal
opposition groups did not attend.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday he was not
sure the conference would take place. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood
said conditions were not right to hold it because international
powers had not done enough to ensure its success.
In a statement on Friday, the Brotherhood, which has members in the
coalition, set out conditions for attending including release of
detainees, opening humanitarian corridors to besieged areas and the
withdrawal from Syria of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollah
fighters who back Assad.
Opposition figures from another coalition group, the Syrian National
Council, have already said they will shun Geneva because world
powers have not done enough to force Assad out.
With time running out until the talks, Western and Arab countries
that oppose Assad will meet on Sunday in Paris. U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov on Monday, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
Moscow has emerged as Assad's main international backer. Badr
Jamous, secretary-general of the National Coalition, suggested that
the opposition's position on the peace talks depends on Moscow: "We
don't need Geneva 2 if Russia thinks Assad is going to remain in
power," Jamous told Reuters.
Syria's conflict started with mostly peaceful protests in March 2011
against the president but turned into an armed insurgency and then
civil war after Assad's security forces cracked down forcefully on
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DOZENS KILLED IN HOMS
The United Nations has said the talks should implement an
international accord reached in Geneva 18 months ago that called for
the establishment of a transitional body.
Assad's supporters and opponents disagree over whether that means
Assad must leave power. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on
Tuesday that Syrians wanted Assad to stand for re-election later
this year, the strongest indication yet that he intends to extend
Damascus says the talks should focus on combating terrorists, the
label it gives to anti-Assad fighters.
The Syrian leader faces little pressure to make concessions after a
year of military and diplomatic gains that saw him recover
rebel-held territory in the center of the country and Washington
abandon a threat to launch military strikes.
The White House said on Friday that it was still reviewing how to
resume shipments of non-lethal aid to moderate rebel groups, which
was suspended after an incident last month in which Islamist
fighters seized supplies from a warehouse.
"This has nothing to do with our support for the moderate military
opposition, but rather the security of our assistance," White House
spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing in Washington, adding that
the United States has resumed non-lethal aid to "civilian actors" in
In the latest fighting, forces loyal to Assad killed dozens of rebel
fighters who tried to break an army siege of the central city of
Thirty-seven rebels were killed by the army, the state controlled
SANA news agency said, without giving a figure for losses among
Assad's forces. The Observatory said at least 45 rebels were
surrounded and killed as they left the old city of Homs late on
Wednesday and early Thursday.
Assad's forces have surrounded rebels for more than a year in Homs.
They have also pushed back rebel forces from nearby rural areas that
had formed part of their supply lines.
Opposition fighters outside Homs protested against their own leaders
in anger over the killings, a video uploaded by activists showed.
Fighters in the countryside said they might have prevented the
deaths if their leaders had let them attack the city, and accused
commanders of taking funds from foreign allies without running an
"These people who died, who is to blame? We are! They say Homs is
under siege, that there's no way to Homs. That's not true. There is
a way from the north," one rebel shouted. "The whole campaign they
launched here (in the countryside) is just so they can collect
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Cordoba, Spain, Gabriela
Baczysnka in Moscow, Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul, Erika Solomon in
Beirut and Roberta Rampton in Washington; editing by Peter Graff and
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