BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria's opposition coalition gave qualified backing on Monday to its leader's surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country.
Although the offer made by the opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, was by his own admission a personal gambit and was initially greeted with a torrent of criticism inside the Syrian opposition movement, his colleagues in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces basically endorsed it over the weekend. While some complained that Sheik Khatib had not consulted them before making the offer and a few even called for his resignation, others went along in part to counter the appearance of fractiousness that has long been a weakness in the opposition.
Sheik Khatib, a respected Sunni cleric in exile who once was the head imam at the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, said he would engage in dialogue with Mr. Assad's government only if it released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports held by members of the Syrian diaspora, which includes large numbers of dissidents.
On Sunday, an aide to Mr. Assad gave a vague response. The aide, Ali Haidar, Syria's minister of national reconciliation, said in an interview with Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed news organization sympathetic to Syria's government, that the government was open to talks with any opposition members who reject violence. He also said it was willing to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Mr. Haidar said the 160,000 figure was exaggerated and asked Sheik Khatib to send a list of prisoner names.
The Syrian opposition, which considers Mr. Assad a brutal dictator responsible for the estimated 60,000 or more deaths in the nearly two-year conflict, had long contended that there could be no talks with his government until he resigned. While the opposition is still saying Mr. Assad's departure must be part of any political settlement to end the conflict, it is no longer a precondition for talks.
Apparently emboldened by the belated support from other members of the opposition coalition, as well as endorsements of his initiative from the United Nations secretary general and special Syria envoy, Sheik Khatib demanded during an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday that Mr. Assad give him a "a clear stand" on the proposal.
"We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully," Sheik Khatib said in the interview. "It is now in the hands of the regime."
Directly addressing President Assad, who has not only refused to resign but has said he might run for re-election next year, Sheik Khatib said: "Before you go to sleep, look into your children's eyes and part of your humanity will return and we will find a solution. Look at your children's eyes and try to find a solution and you will find that we can help each other for the interest of this country."
In a separate interview later with the Al Arabiya news network, Sheik Khatib also suggested that Mr. Assad could appoint as an emissary his vice president, Farouk al-Shara, a longtime member of Mr. Assad's hierarchy who has been mentioned before by Arab diplomats as a possible political transition leader. The sheik said Mr. Sharaa's hands were not "stained with blood."
A spokesman for the opposition said in a telephone interview that members of the coalition's board had also decided that they would offer Mr. Assad the opportunity to escape prosecution, provided he left the country.
"This is the best thing we are willing to offer if we were to have a dialogue with the regime," said the spokesman, Walid al-Bunni. "This is a concession we might bring up if we have a dialogue but the basis for the dialogue should be the regime stepping down."
Mr. Bunni noted that the coalition had issued a statement on Thursday, a day after Sheik Khatib made the offer, that emphasized "that any dialogue should be based on the idea of transition and that the coalition welcomes any international effort if that's the vision they have in mind."
Mr. Bunni also said, "If this goal, Assad stepping down, can be achieved through a political solution, then we are going to receive it in a positive way."
Sheik Khatib sought to strengthen his political credentials at a regional security conference held in Munich over the weekend. He met separately with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, the Assad government's strongest foreign supporters.
In what appeared to be a gesture of good will timed to coincide with those meetings, Syrian rebels released two abducted Russian workers and an Italian citizen in exchange for captured rebel fighters. The news of the exchange, reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, did not specify how many rebels were part of the deal.
Fighters captured the three on Dec. 12 as they traveled from Homs, a major city devastated by heavy fighting, to the tiny Russian military refueling base at the port of Tartus.
In a new indication of the deprivations faced by Syrian civilians, Unicef said Monday that a large-scale operation was under way to provide safe water to more than 10 million people in the country, nearly half the population. Unicef said trucks loaded with chlorination supplies were heading for Homs, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, with further plans for distribution of 1,000 tons of chlorination supplies throughout Syria.
"This shipment is very timely as supplies of chlorine in Syria have fallen dangerously low, making access to safe water challenging for many families," Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, the Unicef representative in Syria, said in a statement. "This puts the population -- and children especially -- at high risk of contracting diarrhea and other waterborne diseases."
Hania Mourtada reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.