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Syrian opposition chief renews dialogue offer

Monday - 2/4/2013, 6:42pm  ET

A Syrian boy holds a bird in his hand that he said was injured in a government airstrike hit the neighborhood of Ansari, in Aleppo, Syria, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the regime, said government troops bombarded a building in Aleppo's rebel-held neighborhood of Eastern Ansari that killed over 10 people, including at least five children. (AP Photo/Abdullah al-Yassin)

Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- The leader of Syria's main opposition group urged President Bashar Assad on Monday to respond to his offer for a dialogue, insisting he is ready to sit down with members of the regime despite sharp criticism from some of his colleagues.

Mouaz al-Khatib, leader of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said he is extending his hand to the regime to "facilitate its peaceful departure." And some anti-regime activists are behind him, threatening even deeper fractures in the already divided movement to oust Assad.

Al-Khatib's offer, first made last week, marks a departure from the mainstream opposition's narrative insisting that Assad step down before any talks. It has angered some of his colleagues who accuse him of acting unilaterally.

It is likely to be rejected by Syrian officials who insist Assad will stay in power at least until his term ends in mid-2014. And even if accepted, he will likely not have broad enough backing among the opposition to make any deal meaningful.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began almost two years ago. The revolt, which began with largely peaceful protests, has turned into civil war now locked in a deadly stalemate with sectarian overtones.

Al-Khatib's overture reflects the realization among some opposition leaders that a victory is unlikely to be achieved on the battlefield as well as disillusionment with an international community that has largely failed to stem the bloodshed and has balked at military intervention to help topple Assad.

"The major powers have no vision. ... Only the Syrian people can find a solution to this crisis," he said in an interview with Qatari-based Al-Jazeera television.

His initiative follows meetings he held separately with Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich over the weekend. Russia and Iran are Syria's two closest allies.

"It is possible that al-Khatib has recognized the fact that the world community is incapable of ending the crisis but he and other Syrians can," said Ahmed Souaiaia, a professor at the University of Iowa with joint appointments in International Studies, Religious Studies, and the College of Law.

The initiative came nearly four weeks after Assad outlined his own vision for ending the conflict with a plan that offers elections and a new constitution but ultimately keeps him in power.

Al-Khatib said last week he is willing to hold talks with the regime in Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey if that would help end the bloodshed. He also made his offer conditional on the regime's release of tens of thousands of detainees and renewal of passports of activists who live abroad.

"Look in the eyes of your children before you sleep maybe will get back some of your humanity and will find a solution together," al-Khatib said in remarks directed at Assad.

The Syrian opposition movement has been plagued from the start of the uprising by a lack of unity and cohesion that has hampered not only success on the battlefield but also foreign assistance.

Opposition figures were divided over al-Khatib's proposal.

"There is difference between negotiating with the regime and negotiating for the regime's departure," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based member of the Syrian National Council opposition group who supports the dialogue offer.

Lathkani added by telephone that al-Khatib's move "aims to stop the bloodshed." But he cautioned that the rebels will not stop their operations during this time.

Others, including prominent coalition leader Kamal Labwani, said al-Khatib committed a "grave mistake" by acting alone and suggested he should apologize publicly or step down.

Al-Khatib, a 52-year-old preacher turned activist, said he was placing the ball in Assad's court.

"The regime has to take a clear stance and we will extend our hand for the sake of our people and in order to facilitate the peaceful departure of the regime," he said, renewing the offer from last week.

There has been no comment from Syrian officials on al-Khatib's initiative last week or his latest comments.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who met al-Khatib, said in Berlin on Monday that "we have to assist the opposition and the government to sit together" and work through a reform process under international supervision.

Iran is viewed by many in the opposition as a party to the killings in Syria because of its support for Assad.

A senior Iranian official visiting Damascus this week appeared to voice support for al-Khatib's call for dialogue, without naming him.

"We welcome any initiative that leads to dialogue," said Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council. He said the talks should be held in Damascus.

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