The Syrian opposition met in Istanbul on Thursday to elect a new leader and decide on a strategy ahead of an expected international peace conference in Geneva next month.
The coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the opposition supports “any conference that helps transition the situation into an elective government away from the dictatorship,” but would not go to Geneva without indications that President Bashar al-Assad will be shown the door, Reuters reported.
The opposition meeting began a day after the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press conference in Amman that if Assad was not prepared to discuss a political solution to end Syria’s civil war, the U.S. and other countries will be prompted to consider stepping up their support to the president’s opponents, news reports said.
Kerry was speaking ahead of a meeting on Thursday attended by the Friends of Syria bloc, which called on Assad’s supporter Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to pull out their fighters from the Syrian territory and described their presence in the country as a threat to regional stability, Reuters stated.
The Friends of Syria alliance's 11-nation core group, which includes Western and Arab nations, as well as Turkey, warned of “severe consequences” if use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces is confirmed.
The Syrian opposition has been rudderless since March when Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, who became the coalition’s first leader in November last year, resigned from the post, at a time when the group was facing criticism from international supporters for continued internal differences.
Burhan Ghalioun, a strong candidate to get elected as the new leader, said the coalition was likely to agree to go to Geneva because it did not want Assad to gain political advantage from the meeting, but added that it was unlikely to produce any deal for a transition of power, Reuters reported.
Other possible candidates include Ahmed Tumeh Kheder, a prominent opposition campaigner from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor; Louay al-Safi, a professor who has taught in the U.S.; acting coalition president George Sabra, a Christian who led anti-Assad demonstrations early in the uprising, the report added.
The U.N. said on May 15 that the death toll in Syria since the start of the uprising in March 2011 is at least 80,000, an increase of about 10,000 from February 2013.
The U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees including those awaiting registration is 1.5 million.