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 — The main, western-backed Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending next week’s peace conference aimed at ending the country’s bloody civil war.
The Syrian National Coalition’s media office said that of 73 voters, 58 voted in favor of attending the conference. It added that 14 voted against, two abstained and one placed a blank ballot.
The 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.
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, killing more than 100,000 people and displacing millions.
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.
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.
One of the main demands of the opposition was that President Bashar 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.
Many Coalition members were 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.
The Coalition’s media office said the group’s leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, will give a speech “to the Syrian people” later Saturday.