Syria Willing to Talk with Armed Opponents, Foreign Minister Says

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria's government is willing to hold talks with members of the armed opposition on ending the country's nearly two-year-old civil war, the Syrian foreign minister said on Monday.

It was the first time that a high-ranking Syrian official had signaled that the government is open to talking with Syrian rebels who have taken up weapons against the armed forces. Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, called in January for talks to resolve the conflict, but appeared to rule out dialogue with armed opponents.

The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, made the statement during a visit to Russia, the Syrian government's main international backer, which has been pressing for talks to resolve a conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries and threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Some of the worst mayhem came last week, when multiple bombings hit government targets in Damascus and at least two Scud missile attacks hit rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

"We are ready for a dialogue with anyone who's willing, even with those who carry arms," Mr. Moallem was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

It was unclear whether Mr. Moallem's offer came with unspoken caveats, such as a precondition that the armed rebels must disarm first, which would essentially make it the same as President Assad's proposal. Syria's main political opposition leader, Sheik Moaz al-Khatib did not immediately respond to it.

The offer also coincided with the first visit abroad by the new American secretary of state, John Kerry, who has been urging Sheik Khatib and other Syrian opposition leaders to meet with him in Rome on Thursday. Sheik Khatib, the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, agreed late on Monday to attend after receiving a telephone call from Mr. Kerry, Sheik Khatib's group announced.

Mr. Kerry has indicated that the United States is prepared to take new steps that could include additional assistance for the Syrian opposition. Although Washington has so far been unwilling to give the rebels weapons, Mr. Kerry said the Syrian opposition would not be left "dangling in the wind."

He cast immediate doubt on Mr. Moallem's offer during a visit to London, the first stop in a nine-nation tour. "It seems to me that it's pretty hard to understand how, when you see the Scuds falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it is possible to take their notion that they are ready to have a dialogue very seriously," Mr. Kerry told reporters.

Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believed Mr. Moallem's offer may have been a tactical maneuver designed to exploit divisions among the Syrian opposition on whether to even negotiate with Mr. Assad's government, which has dismissed opposition demands that it resign as part of any solution.

"There are no details about what this would be a negotiation about, and here I think the regime sees it as a way to get a cease-fire, not a transition," Mr. Tabler said in an e-mail message. "Such a gesture is way too late."

Mr. Moallem's offer came two opposition figures said that Sheik Khatib had already met quietly on at least one recent occasion with a prominent Syrian businessman with close ties to Mr. Assad, apparently in an effort to explore channels for discussion.

Still, Syrian opposition leaders gave conflicting signals on Monday on the future of any talks with members of Mr. Assad's government.

The rebels' top military leader, Gen. Selim Idriss, seemed to harden the opposition's position, ruling out any negotiations until after Mr. Assad steps down -- a precondition the Syrian government and Russia have consistently rejected. But Sheik Khatib said his offer to talk with members of the government without "blood on their hands" remained on the table, although he criticized what he called the Syrian government's slowness to respond.

Russia declared last week that it would work with the Arab League to bring about direct talks between the government and the rebels, and Mr. Moallem was meeting in Moscow on Monday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov.

General Idriss, the leader of the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel fighter group, said that a cessation of violence by the government was "the bottom line" for rebels ahead of any talks. In remarks to Al-Arabyia, a Saudi-backed news Web site, General Idriss also said "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."

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, led by Sheik Khatib, had long insisted on Mr. Assad's departure as a precondition for talks, but on Jan. 30, Sheik Khatib floated the idea of negotiations with members of the government not directly involved in the bloody crackdown.

On Friday after meetings in Cairo, the coalition adopted a written framework for talks that stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad to step down. It called for Mr. Assad and others involved in the killing to be "held accountable for their crimes" and declaring that they "will not be a part of this political solution."

But many in the coalition remain skeptical of talks with the government and see them as a way for Mr. Assad to buy time, and are frustrated that the rebels are under pressure to compromise amid what they see as insufficient international support.

On Monday, Samir Nachar, a member of the coalition, said that Sheik Khatib had met in the past week with Muhammad Hamsho, a prominent Syrian businessman who is close to Maher al-Assad, the president's brother who leads the army's feared Fourth Division, and a frontman for many Assad family enterprises.

News of the meeting, which surfaced in the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, prompted a new round of criticism in some opposition quarters of Sheik Khatib. The newspaper quoted Faiek al-Meer, a member of the banned opposition Democratic People's Party, as saying that Sheik Khatib had met with Mr. Hamsho without telling other coalition members.

Mr. Nachar said that Sheik Khatib had briefed him and other coalition members on the recent meeting, which he said had been initiated by Mr. Hamsho.

"Hamsho asked to meet Moaz al-Khatib and the latter agreed," Mr. Nachar said in an interview. "The meeting did take place, yes. Al-Khatib was straightforward about it place but he refrained from going into details."

Mr. Hamsho is one of several Syrian figures on whom the United States Treasury Department has imposed sanctions since Mr. Assad's harsh crackdown on a peaceful protest movement that began in March 2011 and has since evolved into a civil war.

"Muhammad Hamsho earned his fortune through his connections to regime insiders, and during the current unrest, he has cast his lot with Bashar al-Asad, Mahir al-Asad and others responsible for the Syrian government's violence and intimidation against the Syrian people," David S. Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement in August 2011.

Sheik Khatib did not directly address the issue, but posted a message on his personal Facebook page cautioning against rumors.

Sheik Khatib told reporters in Cairo that he had not had any contacts with the Syrian government about potential meetings. He said that he would postpone a planned visit to Moscow "until we see how things develop," The Associated Press reported.

He added, "We are always open to initiatives that stop the killing and destruction but the regime rejected the simplest of humanitarian conditions. We have asked that the regime start by releasing women prisoners and there was no response," he said. "This regime must understand that the Syrian people do not want it anymore."

Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Michael R. Gordon from London and Rick Gladstone from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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