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Syria says it's prepared to talk with armed rebels

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is the first high-ranking regime official to say the government is prepared to talk with rebels.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks at a press conference in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks at a press conference in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.
Image: Bassem Tellawi/AP/Press Association Images

SYRIA HAS SAID it is prepared to hold talks with the armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects to hold onto power as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.

The offer, by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, came hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion in the capital, followed by gunfire.

The proposal marked the first time that a high-ranking regime official has stated publicly that Damascus would be willing to meet with the armed opposition. But al-Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to lay down their weapons before negotiations could begin — a crucial sticking point in the past.

The regime’s proposal is unlikely to lead to talks. The rebels battling the Syrian military have vowed to stop at nothing less than Assad’s downfall and are unlikely to agree to sit down with a leader they accuse of mass atrocities.

But the timing of the proposal suggests the regime is warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost to the rebels in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.

Tactical victories

Opposition fighters have scored several tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation’s largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking airbases in the northeast. In Damascus, they have advanced from their strongholds in the suburbs into neighborhoods in the northeast and southern rim of the capital, while peppering the center of the city with mortar rounds for days.

Monday night’s blast, which activists said was most likely a car bomb, exploded about 800 yards from Abbasid Square, a landmark plaza in central Damascus. The explosion and subsequent gunfire caused panic in the capital, although the target was not immediately clear and it was not known if there were any casualties.

On Thursday, a car bomb near the ruling Baath Party headquarters in Damascus killed at least 53 people, according to state media.

While the momentum appears to be shifting in the rebels’ direction, the regime’s grip on Damascus remains firm, and Assad’s fall is far from imminent.

‘Murderous criminals’

Still, Monday’s offer to negotiate with the armed opposition — those whom Assad referred to only in January as “murderous criminals” and refused to talk with — reflects the regime’s realization that in the long run, its chances of keeping its grip on power are slim.

Asked about al-Moallem’s remarks, US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the offer of talks was a positive step “in the context of them raining Scuds down on their own civilians.” But he expressed caution about the seriousness of the offer.

“I don’t know their motivations, other than to say they continue to rain down horrific attacks on their own people,” Ventrell told reporters in Washington. “So that speaks pretty loudly and clearly.”

If the Assad regime is serious, he said, it should inform the U.N. peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi of its readiness for talks. Ventrell said the regime hasn’t done that yet.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said called the offer “a sign of weakness.”

“I think everybody knows, including Bashar Assad, that they (the regime) can’t hang onto the whole country,” Tabler said.

Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said the regime has “reached the conclusion that they are heading toward a major defeat eventually, and this is the right time to negotiate.”

“They are not losing miles every day, but they are losing substantial ground every day. So the regime is not genuine (in its offer) because it has changed, it’s genuine because it is responding to a major shift in the balance of power on the ground,” he added.

Non-lethal aid

Alani cautioned, however, that the regime is also eager to keep the idea of talks alive in order to forestall any Western decision on arming the rebels. As long as the possibility of negotiations is still on the table, the US and the European Union — which have so far provided only non-lethal aid — will be reluctant to open the flood gates on weapons for the opposition, he said.

“The whole regime tactic is to delay supplying arms, to buy time,” Alani said. “The regime can show good will. Whether they’re a viable partner or not is a different story.”

It’s also unclear who exactly the regime would sit across from at the negotiating table.

The dozens of armed groups across Syria fall under no unified command and do not answer to the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of opposition parties that the West recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

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At least one group offered a lukewarm response Monday to al-Moallem’s proposal.

The head of one group, Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss, said he is “ready to take part in dialogue within specific frameworks,” but then rattled off conditions that the regime has rejected in the past.

“There needs to be a clear decision on the resignation of the head of the criminal gang, Bashar Assad, and for those who participated in the killing of the Syrian people to be put on trial,” Idriss told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya TV.

More than 70,000 dead

He said the government must agree to stop all kinds of violence and to hand over power, saying that “as rebels, this is our bottom line.”

Syria’s 23-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people and destroyed many of the country’s cities, has repeatedly confounded international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Russia, a close ally of Assad and his regime’s chief international advocate, offered Feb. 20, in concert with the Arab League, to broker talks between the rebels and the government.

With the proposal, which the Kremlin would be unlikely to float publicly without first securing Damascus’ word that it would indeed take part, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure on Syria to talk to the opposition.

Russia has shielded Assad’s government from UN action and kept shipping weapons to the military, but it is growing increasingly difficult to protect the regime as the violence grinds on.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his call Monday for Syria to negotiate with the opposition, saying before meeting al-Moallem that “the situation in Syria is at a crossroads now.” He also warned that further fighting could lead to “the breakup of the Syrian state.”

Past government offers for talks with the opposition have included a host of conditions, such as demanding that the rebels first lay down their arms. Those proposals have been swiftly rejected by both activists outside Syria and rebels on the ground.

Read: Damascus hit by its deadliest bombing in Syria war

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