Palestinian children attend a rally in solidarity with Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the suburbs of the Syrian capital of Damascus, in Gaza City, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The Yarmouk camp once housed some 160,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war in Israel known by Palestinians as “Naqba,” or the Catastrophe, and by Israelis as the War of Independence. The dire conditions at the Yarmouk camp are a striking example of the catastrophe unfolding in rebel-held areas blockaded by the Syrian government. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
ISTANBUL (AP) — The main, Western-backed Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending a coming peace conference aimed at ending the country’s bloody civil war, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year conflict.
The vote in Istanbul came as food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria’s capital for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by President Bashar Assad’s government ahead of the peace conference, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.
The Syrian National Coalition was under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The Syrian government has already said it will attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.
The Coalition’s leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that they are heading to the conference “without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution and we will not be cheated by Assad’s regime.”
“The negotiating table for us is a track toward achieving the demands of the revolution — at the top of them removing the butcher from power,” Jarba said.
But many Coalition members are hesitant to attend a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with powerful rebels on the ground, who reject the talks. Many members boycotted the Istanbul meetings that began on Friday, forcing the Coalition’s legal committee to approve the decision in a simple majority vote.
Although Islamic rebel groups reject any talks with the government, the head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, said in a statement that he backs “a solution that guarantees a political transition of power.”
He called upon Coalition officials heading to Geneva to demand that Assad and his top officials leave power, have no role in Syria’s future and set up a transitional government “with full powers” that include control of security agencies and open corridors to allow food into besieged areas.
Maj. Issam el-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Front, also said they back a political solution that would include Assad leaving power.
The Coalition’s media office said there were 58 votes in favor of attending the conference and 14 votes against. It added that there were two abstentions and one blank ballot.
The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva 2, is to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government and eventual elections.
The U.S. and Russia have been trying to hold the peace conference since last year and it has been repeatedly delayed. Both sides finally agreed to sit together on the negotiations table after dropping some of their conditions.
One of the main demands of the opposition was that Assad agrees to step down before going to the conference. With his government troops keeping their momentum on the ground, Assad’s government has said he will not surrender power and may run again in elections due in mid-2014.
It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition since the country’s crisis began in March 2011. Activists say the fighting has killed more than 130,000 people while displacing millions.
The U.S. and France welcomed the Coalition’s vote.
“This is a courageous vote in the interests of all the Syrian people who have suffered so horribly under the brutality of the Assad regime and a civil war without end,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius applauded the vote in a statement as a “courageous choice, despite provocations and exactions of the regime.”
Meanwhile Saturday, some 200 food parcels were sent into the Yarmouk camp outside of Damascus, said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Gunness said the Syrian government requested the delivery.
Yarmouk is one of the areas hardest hit by food shortages in Syria. Residents there say 46 people have died since October of starvation, illnesses exacerbated by hunger or because they couldn’t obtain medical aid. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said an elderly man died in the camp earlier Saturday because of the food shortage.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, said hundreds of boxes of food entered the camp. He said much of the material was carried by members of PFLP-GC members and committees in the camp.
“The process is moving slowly since they are being carried on the shoulder to avoid sniper fire,” Raja told The Associated Press in Damascus by telephone.
PFLP-GC members are fighting against Syrian opposition fighters who control most of the camp.
Gunness said the U.N. laid down an express condition that the food “must be distributed exclusively to civilians in need of assistance” and that fighters shouldn’t receive it. He also said the area should be opened for regular access by humanitarian groups.
Meanwhile Saturday, violence continued. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a government air raid on the northern city of Aleppo killed 23 people.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.