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Decision on attending peace talks brings main Syrian opposition group to brink of collapse

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BEIRUT - Two weeks ahead of an international peace conference on Syria, the country's main Western-backed opposition group stands on the brink of collapse, dragged down by outside pressures, infighting and deep disagreements over the basic question of whether to talk to President Bashar Assad.

The crisis in the Syrian National Coalition raises further doubts about the so-called Geneva conference, which is set to open Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The prospects for a successful outcome at the talks appear bleak at best: Assad has said he will not hand over power, and the opposition — if it decides to attend — is in no position to force concessions from him.

The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the government nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.

Now that a date has been set and invitations sent, the decision on whether to attend is placing immense strain on the Coalition.

"Geneva is proving to be a road to ruin for the so-called moderate opposition, both the political and military aspects," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

The various competing factions that make up the Coalition are under intense international pressure to attend, Shaikh said, all the while knowing that "if they do, they may very well be entering into a very ill-defined and ill-prepared conference that may not produce anything that they can show to their brethren inside Syria, and further diminish their credibility."

The issue of credibility has haunted the Coalition since its creation just over a year ago. The umbrella group was forged under international pressure for a stronger, more united body to serve as a counterweight to the extremist forces fighting the Assad government.

But the Coalition has never coalesced into the unified and effective leadership outside powers, including the United States and its Arab allies, envisioned, while the rebels and activists inside Syria have accused the opposition-in-exile of being ineffectual and out of touch.

Some of the Coalition's struggles have not been entirely of its own making, and the decision of whether to attend the peace conference has laid bare the group's internal contradictions.

The Coalition was never an organic organization that enjoyed broad popular support inside Syria from activists and fighters. Its legitimacy has always flowed from its foreign patrons.

The group could have boosted its credibility with its detractors inside Syria by securing concrete international support — especially weapons — from its allies. But those sponsors routinely balked, fearful that any arms they provided might fall into the hands of the Islamic extremists who have become a dominant force among the armed opposition.

The failure to deliver sapped any goodwill the Coalition might have been able to curry with the fighters, activists and civilians inside Syria. It all began to publicly unravel in September when nearly a dozen of the most prominent rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council. Many more have since followed suit.

Those fighters flatly reject negotiations with the regime. In order to be credible with them, the Coalition must also reject peace talks, but doing so would mean shrugging off the demands of its international allies.

In a sign of how divisive the issue is, the Coalition held five days of meetings over the past week to decide whether to go to Geneva. The gathering descended into chaos, with members storming out in protest. Eventually, the Coalition postponed its decision until at least the middle of next week — less than a week before the peace conference is to begin.

Since then, the number of people who have at least temporarily suspended their membership now stands at 45, said the Coalition's representative in Qatar, Nizar al-Hrakey.

"The walkout was a culmination of many misgivings people have had ... for a long time, which have led us to a dead end with the Coalition," al-Hrakey said by telephone from Istanbul. "This includes its operations, its makeup and decision-making process. Last but not least were the disputes over Geneva."

Coalition chief Ahmed al-Jarba sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying the group would go to Geneva without getting the OK from the Coalition's general council, al-Hrakey said.

"This was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.

Veteran Syrian opposition figure Haitham Manna said he expected the Coalition to splinter ahead of the peace conference.

"I always said the Geneva conference will be the end of the Coalition," he said. "The group has an explosive makeup."

Despite the existential threat to the Coalition, its patrons have kept up the pressure to go to Geneva.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pushed for the Coalition to attend, saying the conference was the only hope for creating a transitional government and ultimately ending the fighting.

"We're asking one and all to make an effort to participate," Fabius said. "And then, if Geneva comes together, which we want, there will be a second difficulty, which is to achieve concrete results."

As diplomats have manoeuvred to try to make Geneva happen, the violence of the war has continued unabated.

On Thursday, a car bomb exploded near a school in the village of al-Kaffat in the central province of Hama, killing at least 17 people, Syria's state news agency said.

The explosion occurred amid continuing infighting in northern Syria between rebel brigades and an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The extremist group has alienated other factions by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and by kidnapping and killing of opponents.

A consortium of rebel groups began attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, and weeklong clashes have killed hundreds of people in what has become a war within the war in Syria.

___

Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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