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 antigovernment 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 US ambassador to Syria, told the activists 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, to 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 the humanitarian disaster.
There were “hot debates,” said Radwan Ziadeh, who leads the transitional justice commission in the interim government. But, he added: “Geneva became an essential option because we’re facing a stalemate between the Free Syrian Army and Assad.”
While US 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. The Syrian government rejects that condition.
“We’re not going to Geneva to surrender, but to stop the bloodshed,” said Hisham Marwa, a member of the opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. “We support the political solution.”
In all, 9 million people have been forced from their homes. Well over 100,000 are dead.