Hizbollah chief vows to fight on in Syria
Istanbul // The Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah yesterday promised to lead his followers to victory in Syria.
Mr Nasrallah confirmed the Lebanese Shiite militia are involved in the civil war, fighting alongside Assad regime troops in the bitter battle to wrest control of the stretegic town of Qusayr from rebels.
"I have always promised you victory, so today I promise you a new one," Mr Nasrallah said in a televised speech to mark the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
There was no popular political revolution, he said, just a foreign plot against the anti-Israeli "resistance" - Syria, Hizbollah and Iran - that must be defeated at all costs.
"Syria is the backbone of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand, arms folded while its back is broken," Mr Nasrallah told supporters from a secret location though a video link.
Thousands of fighters stood ready to join the battle, he said, and the fall of Mr Al Assad's regime would give rise to extremists and plunge the Middle East into a "dark period".
Mr Nasrallah said his group would not allow Syrian rebels to control areas that border Lebanon,, and severly criticised the Lebanese government as weak and ineffectual .
Regime troops backed by tanks, artillery and Hizbollah fighters yesterday carried out the heaviest bombardment in a week of fighting for Qusayr. At least 22 people, most of them rebels, were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
As the fighting raged, the Syrian National Coalition, the officially recognised opposition alliance, continued a third day of talks in Istanbul. Originally scheduled to finish yesterday, the talks have been extended for another two days amid what coalition members say have been "huge" internal divisions.
By yesterday, the SNC was scheduled to have decided on new leadership, an expansion of its 63 members, participation - or not - in the Geneva 2 talks, and to have made progress on the make-up of its transitional government.
None of those key issues has yet been addressed.
With the SNC all but paralysed by infighting since its formation in November last year, competing foreign influences have only highlighted the opposition's fissures.
SNC officials said they had come under unprecedented pressure "to the point of threats" from various foreign backers.
"We have been told that if an expansion is not agreed and, if we do not agree to go to Geneva 2, our funding will be cut off and there will be no weapons for the Free Syrian Army," an SNC official said on condition of anonymity.
"Everyone is playing with us, we are pawns in an international chess game," the official said.
The US and Saudi Arabia were both leaning hard on the SNC to make those steps, members said, with Qatar and Turkey using their influence to push in the other direction and decouple agreement over attending Geneva 2 from funding.
Khalid Saleh, the SNC's spokesman, brushed aside questions of late-night foreign arm twisting in the Istanbul hotel where the conference is taking place.
"I have heard rumours [of undue foreign pressure] but I can deny these rumours," Mr Saleh told a news briefing yesterday evening.
"Members of the coalition are free to meet whomever they want but the decision that takes place inside [the conference hall] is a Syrian decision," he said. "In the end it is our decision."
Discussions on Geneva 2, the diplomatic initiative orchestrated by the US and Russia, were "still at a very early stage", Mr Saleh said
"We are exchanging opinions, we have not yet made a decision," he said.
The US and Russia, the two main powers behind the Geneva 2 talks, have said they will try to bring the opposition and the Syrian regime to the negotiating table and open the way for a peaceful end to a conflict in which more than 94,000 people have already been killed.
Much remains up in the air, including the date, the agenda and the list of participants.
The regime has agreed in principle to take part in the negotiations, according to Moscow, a principal internationally ally of Mr Al Assad's regime. The US, backing the opposition, wants to ensure the opposition takes part in the talks.
Expansion of the SNC's membership, has proven a key sticking point at the Istanbul conference.
"There is definitely agreement on the principle of expansion," Mr Saleh said.
But the crucial details have not been thrashed out.
Michael Kilo, a prominent secular Syrian dissident, leads a group aiming for inclusion in the SNC, with the backing of the US and Saudi Arabia.
According to an SNC official, Mr Kilo's bloc initially asked for 37 members in an expanded coalition - which would give it a strong presence and dilute the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, currently the best organised and most powerful SNC faction.
The only concrete decision to emerge yesterday, after three days of relentless and often heated talks, has been to include three new members from the Kurdish National Council into the SNC.
Even that agreement - hailed as progress, as it was the first time Kurdish groups had formally joined the SNC - was carefully caveated , with discussions ongoing about "documentation".
Powerful and well organised Kurdish factions have to date stayed out of the SNC, demanding clear guarantees that Syria's Kurds have the right to self-governance and recognition as the country's second largest ethnic group - anathema to nationalist Arabs.
Yesterday also marked the anniversary of a massacre at Houla, likely carried out by a pro-regime militia according to the UN, and the anniversary of the return of Hamza Al Khatib's corpse to his family, after the 13-year-old was tortured and killed in Syrian government custody, according to activists and rights groups.
* This article has been corrected since publication. Mr Nasrallah’s speech celebrated Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, not from the Gaza Strip as we originally stated.
Published: May 26, 2013 04:00 AM