ISTANBUL — After a bitter debate and a walkout by more than a third of its members, Syria's main exile opposition group voted Saturday to take part in negotiations with the government of President Bashar Assad that the U.N. is sponsoring next week in Switzerland.
Ahmed al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, announced the decision in an emotional address in which he pledged not to betray the uprising that began 34 months ago and has turned into the bloodiest confrontation of the so-called Arab Spring.
He promised that fighting would continue.
After "atrocities that are unprecedented in history," the deaths of "200,000 martyrs," and with millions of Syrians forced to flee their homes, the opposition had decided to join the Geneva talks "to rid Syria of this criminal — to rid Syria of this tyranny," he said.
"We will go to Geneva — with our heads held high," he said, "not to bargain over the principles of the revolution," adding that "We are not few in number, nor weak."
He made no mention of the guarantee that opposition leaders had sought, that Assad have no part in any transitional government.
Jarba, 44, also made no mention of a possible cease-fire, which the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran had sought to bring about before the talks begin Wednesday in Montreux, outside Geneva.
The vote in the 120-member coalition was 58 to 14 with two abstentions and two spoiled ballots. Forty-four members had walked out Friday, saying they wouldn't return to take part in a vote unless military commanders on the ground approved the decision.
Before the vote, the coalition had to finesse its own bylaws, which stipulate that its leadership will not negotiate with the Syrian government. Amending the bylaws would have required a two-thirds vote of the entire membership, which was impossible because of Friday's walkout. Instead, the group's legal committee ruled that a majority vote would suffice though it was not clear how.
With support from the Turkish government, leaders of major armed groups met for two days in Ankara. They apparently had not decided when they broke Saturday afternoon but were "more and more inclined" to agree to go, a Turkish official said.
Louay Safi, a coalition spokesman, said members consulted with the military leaders and that fighting forces would have a place on the delegation.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the vote "courageous" and pledged continued U.S. support for the Syrian opposition as they seek "a negotiated political transition."
The United States will "continue to demand an end to the regime's SCUD missiles, barrel bombs and horrific weapons used against civilians," he said, but did not hint that the U.S. would provide weapons to defend against such weapons.
He also said the U.S. "would keep pushing for improved humanitarian access, prisoner releases and the return of journalists and aid workers held hostage."
The head of the U.S.-supported Supreme Military Council, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, said his forces endorsed going to Geneva if it guarantees a transition of the political leadership and accomplishes the goals of the revolution.
Idriss said the fighters on the ground have five demands: Assad's removal from power, the removal of all security branches responsible for killing civilians, the creation of a transitional governing council with full powers, the release of all prisoners and the immediate opening of humanitarian corridors to all besieged areas.
Turkish officials said the principal argument made to the military leaders to attend was that the absence of the opposition would leave the stage to the Syrian government.