ISTANBUL: The divided Syrian opposition meets Friday to decide whether to join landmark talks next week aimed at ending almost three years of brutal conflict, facing intense pressure from Western and Arab allies to attend.
On the eve of the National Coalition's meeting in Istanbul, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a powerful plea to the exiled group to decide in favour of the long-delayed talks opening in Switzerland on January 22.
And at key preparatory talks with Russia in Moscow on Friday, the Syrian regime said it was ready to swap prisoners with the rebels in the first such mass exchange since the conflict began in March 2011.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem could mark another diplomatic success for Russia after the Kremlin managed to convince Damascus last year to renounce its chemical weapons to avert US air strikes.
Next week's so-called Geneva II conference is aimed at finding a way to install a transitional government to help chart an end to the civil war, which has cost 130,000 lives and sent millions fleeing.
Muallem said Syria would "make every effort to ensure this event is a success and meets the aspirations of the Syrian people and the direct orders of President Bashar al-Assad".
But parts of the deeply fractured Syrian opposition are wary of being drawn into a process they fear could result in Assad clinging to power and had set his departure as a condition for joining the talks.
"The United States... urges a positive vote," Kerry told reporters. "The Syrian people need to be able to determine the future of their country, their voice must be heard."
'Between a rock and a hard place'
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres also said Friday it was vital the Geneva talks found a political solution to the conflict as he appealed for the world to ease the massive burden on countries which have taken in millions of refugees.
The UN earlier this week launched a massive $6.5 billion appeal for humanitarian aid.
"For me it is unacceptable to see Syrian refugees drowning, dying in the Mediterranean or pushed back at some borders," Guterres said at a meeting of refugee-hosting countries in Turkey.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria was ready to take a series of humanitarian steps that would lead to the quicker delivery of assistance to those suffering from the civil war.
But Friday's opposition meeting in Istanbul -- which comes more than a week after the coalition failed to agree a united stance -- are expected to be fraught.
"The debate will be long and difficult because the coalition leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place," said one Western diplomat.
"It is likely in the end that the coalition will send a delegation to Geneva but at what cost to its future."
A key bloc, the Syrian National Council, has already threatened to pull out of the coalition if it votes in favour of attending Geneva II.
Complicating the situation are the continuing fierce battles between mainstream rebels in Syria and Al-Qaeda linked jihadists that monitors say have killed over 1,000 people in two weeks.
A senior Damascus official said this week that Western intelligence officials visited Syria to discuss joint security cooperation against the radical Islamist fighters, but this was denied by US officials.
The Syrian regime had warned Monday against setting preconditions for the talks that kick off in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux.
"Any person who seeks preconditions or mistakes their dreams for reality is leading to the failure of the Geneva conference before it even starts," Syrian state media quoted a foreign ministry source as saying.
But Kerry sought to allay opposition fears that the talks would somehow legitimise Assad's regime and leave him in power.
"Any names put forward for leadership of Syria's transition must, according to the terms of Geneva I ... those names must be agreed to by both the opposition and the regime," he said.
"This means that any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side, whether president Assad or a member of the opposition cannot be a part of the future."
British media reported earlier this week that the United States and Britain had even threatened to cut support to the opposition if it failed to send a delegation to Switzerland.
"They are making it very clear that they will not continue to support us the way they are doing now and that we will lose credibility with the international community if we do not go," an unnamed senior coalition official was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, Syria's regime-tolerated opposition the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change said Wednesday it will boycott Geneva II to protest at calls for it to form a single delegation with the coalition.