BEIRUT — During the fractious weekend debates that ended with the main Syrian exile opposition coalition yielding to international pressure by dropping its refusal to hold peace talks with President Bashar Assad’s government, tensions ran so high that one prominent coalition member slapped another in the face, participants in the gathering said.
In the hallways outside the meeting at an Istanbul hotel, young anti-government activists exasperated with the coalition’s failure to forge an effective opposition said they had grudgingly pressed the group to approve the peace talks, calling them the only hope to slow the killing of Syrians.
Stoking tensions all around, Robert S. Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the activists on the sidelines that the emerging reality presented them with unpalatable options: accept that the current government could continue in power longer than they would like, or face the continued rise of extremist jihadist groups that have terrified residents, clashed with rival insurgents and undermined Western support.
Under intense American, British and European pressure, the coalition voted early Monday, after two days of debate, that it would attend peace talks sponsored by the United States and Russia in Geneva if certain conditions were met, including full access for delivery of humanitarian aid and the release of prisoners.
There were signs that some in the coalition had moderated their position in the face of the urgency of addressing the humanitarian disaster.
Although there were “hot debates,” said Radwan Ziadeh, who leads the transitional justice commission in the interim government, “Geneva became an essential option because we’re facing a stalemate between the Free Syrian Army and Assad.”
But while U.S. officials hailed the step as significant, it risks becoming the latest of many tentative moves toward talks that have proved illusory, since the coalition retained its demand that Assad play no role in any future political transition, a condition the Syrian government rejects.
The coalition “will lose in both cases,” said Jamil Salo, an anti-government activist who attended the meeting on the sidelines after fleeing the northeastern city of Raqqa because of threats from an extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“If they refuse to attend the meeting, they will give legitimacy to the regime, and they will lose the grass roots if they go,” Salo said in an interview from Istanbul, adding that Ford had told activists they faced a choice, “ISIS or the regime.”