In shift, Syrian regime says it's ready to talk to rebels

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in Moscow that the Assad government wanted to engage in 'dialogue with anyone who's willing for it, even those who carry arms.'

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, unseen, in Moscow on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.

For the first time since the Syrian civil war began almost two years ago, a top member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government today offered to engage in talks with rebel leaders to find a diplomatic resolution to the fighting. But the opposition leadership has reportedly dismissed the offer, insisting that the president must first step down.

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow before talks with his Russian counterpart, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that "We're ready for a dialogue with anyone who's willing for it, even those who carry arms," reports the Associated Press.

"We are confident that reforms will come about not with the help of bloodshed but through dialogue," he added. The AP notes that it is unclear whether he meant that the government would be willing to negotiate with rebels before they laid down their arms.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also called upon Syria to open negotiations with the rebels, saying that "the situation in Syria is at a crossroads now."

But in an email to the Guardian, Khalid Saleh, a spokesman of the Western-backed Syrian opposition umbrella group known as the Syrian National Coalition, called Mr. Moallem's offer "empty" and "deceitful." Mr. Saleh insisted that talks could not involve Mr. Assad or his allies, and that Assad must resign.

There is nothing new in what Moualem said. It is more of the same empty offers the regime has been putting out for the last few months.

We are not looking for a dialogue. We are offering negotiations with those who have not committed crimes against Syrians to transfer powers from the Assad regime to the Syrian people. Moualem's offer is deceitful, and it seems that he wants to divide up those who are fighting against Assad. It will be more appropriate for Moualem – who is offering dialogue with those carrying weapons – to ask his regime to stop using scud missiles against those who are not armed.

We need serious movement from Assad regime not repeated empty offers.

Still, Moallem's comments come amid signs from both sides of the conflict – and from the US and Russia – in favor of a diplomatic solution. Despite Saleh's rejection of Moallem's proposal, it was only a few weeks ago that Mouaz al-Khatib, the SNC's leader, called for Assad to open negotiations with his organization. BBC News reported that Mr. Khatib's offer displeased many in the SNC, which has long insisted that Assad's resignation was a precondition for any talks.

And Mr. Lavrov is scheduled to meet with newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin on Wednesday. The New York Times notes that even before the meeting was planned, Mr. Kerry had indicated that he had new ideas toward resolving the Syrian conflict, and that working with Russia, a staunch ally of Mr. Assad, appears to be part of those ideas.

Reuters notes that there are multiple sticking points before even an initial meeting could take place. One is the venue: the rebels insist that any negotiations would have to take place abroad or in rebel-held territory, while the Syrian government insists that it should host someplace within state control.

Further, the rebels demand that any peace talks must ultimately lead to Assad's departure from the government. Assad told UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that he intends to complete his term and run for reelection in 2014.

And even if talks were held, Reuters adds, the Syrian opposition's political leaders, who would be conducting the talks, are in large part disconnected from the rebels on the ground, who appear to be willing to fight until Assad is toppled.

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