DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels kept up resistance Saturday against a Hezbollah-backed government assault on a strategic central town as pressure grew on a political opposition in disarray to attend a peace conference.
The main opposition National Coalition has met in Istanbul for three days trying to overcome deep divisions over Russian and US proposals to convene a conference to which representatives of President Bashar al-Assad would be invited without any formal precondition for him to step down.
The opposition’s longstanding position is that, after more than two years of devastating conflict has killed more than 94,000 people, it will not negotiate until Assad agrees to leave.
Delegates said efforts to reach an agreed position on the proposed conference were being delayed by pressure from some of the opposition’s Gulf Arab backers for an overhaul of its membership that was being resisted by other governments.
A bid by oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and to hold sway over the Coalition has overshadowed the debate, dissidents said.
“You have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushing to include up to 30 new members in the National Coalition,” a Coalition member said on condition of anonymity.
“Their goal is to downsize the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over the group,” he added.
The National Coalition is currently dominated by the Syrian National Council, in which the main political bloc is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Delegates said the meeting was expected to continue on Sunday.
Government troops launched almost a week ago an assault on Qusayr and the intervention of hundreds of fighters of Shiite militant group Hezbollah from neighbouring Lebanon has given the regime the upper hand in the battle.
Loyalists overran a disused military airport on Saturday just north of the besieged town, where the rebels had set up base, a military source said.
But six days after the assault began, fierce resistance continued from the rebels, for whom Qusayr provides an important supply line for arms and volunteers from nearby Lebanon.
“The fighting and shelling, which took place on Saturday on the main roads inside and outside of Qusayr, are the most intense since the beginning of the offensive,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdul Rahman.
The Observatory said at least 27 rebels and three civilians were killed, including a child.
Qusayr is a key prize for Assad because of its strategic location between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland of the embattled president’s regime.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday vowed “victory” in Syria and stressed it was in his militant anti-Israeli group’s own interest to defend the Assad regime.
“I say to all the honourable people, to the mujahedeen, to the heroes: I have always promised you a victory and now I pledge to you a new one” in Syria, he said in a speech for the 13th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.
“Syria is the rear guard of the resistance (Hezbollah’s fight with Israel), its backbone, and the resistance cannot stay with its arms folded when its rear guard is exposed,” he said. “We are idiots if we do not act.”
His speech followed rare criticism of Hezbollah on Friday by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, who cautioned it against its intervention in Syria.
Of concern to world powers is that the offensive in Qusayr has sparked renewed clashes between Assad supporters and opponents inside Lebanon.
Fighting between them in the Lebanese port of Tripoli has killed 30 people since May 19, a security source said.
Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Saturday denied accusations by US officials that Iranian forces had forces on the ground alongside Hezbollah. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has never sent military forces to Syria and will never do so,” he said.
Meanwhile Syria’s eastern neighbour Iraq launched a major security operation in the border region deploying 20,000 troops to clear suspected rebel rear bases and secure a key highway, senior officers said.
The opposition Coalition, wrong-footed by Moscow’s announcement that regime representatives had agreed to attend next month’s planned peace conference, called on Damascus to give concrete evidence of its readiness for a transition of power.
“It’s very important for us to have goodwill gestures, and from both sides,” spokesman Khaled al-Saleh told reporters.
The United States and Russia, which support opposite sides in Syria’s conflict, are pushing for the conference. On Monday US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Paris to step up their efforts to organise it.
Syria’s opposition has been deeply divided over whether to take part. Some within the Coalition said it should negotiate if talks lead to Assad’s departure, while others have expressed reservations.