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Syrian opposition votes to attend Geneva 2 peace talks

By CNN Staff
January 20, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Top U.S. diplomat calls opposition's vote to attend conference "courageous"
  • Representatives of the country's main opposition group vote 58 to 14 in favor of attending
  • The goal of the talks is to set up a transitional government to end the violence
  • Syria has proposed a negotiated "end to military operations" in Aleppo, perhaps elsewhere

(CNN) -- The Syrian National Coalition voted Saturday to attend next week's peace talks in Geneva.

The secret balloting among 75 representatives of Syria's main opposition group, which have been meeting this week in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Istanbul, resulted in 58 votes in favor and 14 opposed, with two abstentions and one person who handed in an unmarked ballot, the coalition's media office told CNN.

But the tally masked deep divisions within the opposition: another 44 members of the group refused to vote at all. And some of those doing the fighting in Syria have said that participation in the talks would be an act of treachery.

Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry applauded what he called "a courageous vote in the interests of all the Syrian people who have suffered so horribly under the brutality of the (President Bashar al-) Assad regime and a civil war without end.

Looking to end the Syrian conflict
Syrian Opposition to attend peace talks
The ghost homes of Aleppo

The top U.S. diplomat promised that he'd engage "directly with the Syrian opposition and the international community" when the conference starts next Wednesday.

"By voting to go to Geneva 2 with a mission to negotiate an end to the war, the opposition has chosen a path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians," Kerry said in a statement Saturday.

The goal of the talks -- dubbed Geneva 2 in recognition of a similar effort in the Swiss city in 2012 -- is to set up a transitional government that would end the violence that has wracked the country since March 2011, killing more than 100,000 people.

Kerry explained late last week that the meeting's goal is to implement the communique that was the fruit of the first such meeting.

"It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition government body -- governing body -- with full executive powers established by mutual consent," he told reporters.

Any names put forward for leadership of Syria's transition must, according to the terms of Geneva 1, be agreed to by the opposition and the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad, according to Kerry.

"That is the very definition of mutual consent," he continued. "This means that any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side, whether President or a member of the opposition, cannot be a part of the future."

In addition, he said, it "defies logic that those whose brutality created" the current situation could lead Syria toward a better future.

The peace conference would not be the end, but the beginning of a process, he said.

Al-Assad has said he does not look at the talks as a way for him to transition out of power.

On Friday, his foreign minister announced that he'd given his Russian counterpart a proposal "to determine the time and date where there will be an end to the military operations" in Aleppo and urged him to help broker its passage.

"We will wait for Minister (Sergey) Lavrov to tell us the time and the date, the hour, and we will commit ourselves to these arrangements -- if he has enough guarantees that the other side will accept and commit themselves as well," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said.

If that succeeds, he said, Damascus is prepared to extend the plan to other areas of the country.

Meanwhile, state-run Syrian media reported Saturday that the first shipment of aid has reached the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp outside Damascus, where dozens of people have died of starvation and lack of medical attention since the camp was cut off by warring factions last November.

READ: Kerry restates goal for 'Geneva 2' conference on Syria

READ: Syria milestone: Chemical weapons materials on ship for destruction

PHOTOS: Haunting images of Syria's abandoned homes

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh and Raja Razek in Beirut, plus Tom Watkins, Greg Botelho and Saad Abedine in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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