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Syrian opposition shake-up falters ahead of peace conference

Louay al-Safi, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition (L), speaks during a news conference in Istanbul May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Akin Celik
Louay al-Safi, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition (L), speaks during a news conference in Istanbul May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Akin Celik

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A crisis in Syria's opposition deepened on Monday when liberals were offered only token representation, undermining international efforts to lend the Islamist-dominated alliance greater support.

To the dismay of envoys of Western and Arab nations monitoring four days of opposition talks in Istanbul, the 60-member Syrian National Coalition thwarted a deal to admit a liberal bloc headed by opposition campaigner Michel Kilo.

The failure to broaden the coalition, in which Qatar and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood has been playing the driving role, could undermine Saudi Arabian support for the revolt and raise the specter of a rivalry among Gulf powers that could further weaken the opposition.

Its Western backers have pressured the Coalition to resolve its divisions and expand to include more liberals to counter domination by Islamists. The plan also had support from Saudi Arabia, which had been preparing to assume a bigger role in coalition politics and has been uneasy about the rise of Qatar's influence, coalition insiders said.

Its apparent failure to do so came hours before the European Union was scheduled at a meeting in Brussels to discuss lifting an arms embargo that could allow weapons to reach rebel fighters in Syria seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The disarray also threatens to strengthen Assad's hand ahead of a international peace conference backed by the United States and Russia, planned to be held in Geneva in the coming weeks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were due to meet in Paris on Monday to discuss that planned conference.

Kilo's group received an offer of only five seats - instead of the more than 20 it had been looking for - after a session in Turkey that stretched nearly to dawn, coalition sources said.

The move left the Coalition controlled by a faction loyal to Qatari-backed Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. That group led resistance to the rule of Assad's late father in the 1980s, when thousands of its members were tortured and executed.

"We were talking about 25 names as the basis for our negotiations, then there was agreement on 22 and then the number dropped to 20, then to 18, then to 15, then to five," Kilo said, addressing the Coalition.

"I do not think you have a desire to cooperate and hold our extended hand. ... We wish you all the best."

A member of the Kilo camp said his bloc would meet later to decide whether to withdraw from the opposition meeting, although he said the coalition may still make a better offer.

Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh described the outcome as "democratic" but said the Coalition could discuss the expansion issue further.

SAUDI SIDELINED

With Lebanese Shi'ite guerrillas from Iranian-backed Hezbollah now openly fighting alongside government troops in Syria, Saudi Arabia is keen to play a greater role in backing the Sunni-led opposition, opposition sources have said.

Significant expansion of the 60-member Coalition would have diluted the influence of Qatar, the other main Arab player backing the revolt against Assad.

Coalition members who had campaigned for an organizational shake-up said the feeble offer to Kilo's bloc was an affront to Riyadh and would make Saudi Arabia balk at backing the opposition more forcefully.

"The only time the Saudis ask for something substantive from the opposition we turn them down," a coalition source said.

"Saudi Arabia before this meeting was on the verge of throwing its weight behind the revolt. It would have made sense for Qatar to take a role in line with its size and let Saudi Arabia take a lead role. Sabbagh, and apparently Qatar, got their way, but at what expense?"

Sabbagh, who has played a main role in channeling money for aid and military supplies into Syria, has been resisting a Saudi-supported plan to add members to the Coalition, opposition sources said.

"Sabbagh has been told by Qatar that the Saudis are brothers and he should compromise. But he is a Syrian first and he will put the interest of the national opposition above everything," an ally of Sabbagh in the Coalition said.

The Coalition's meeting in Istanbul has been extended by two days to discuss the Geneva conference and a new leadership, including the fate of provisional Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, who has not been able to form a provisional government in exile since being appointed on March 19.

The Coalition has been rudderless since the resignation of Moaz AlKhatib, a cleric who had floated two initiatives for Assad to leave power peacefully.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alastair Macdonald)

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