BEIRUT: Syria’s opposition National Coalition rejected Thursday a surprise suggestion by its head to open talks with government representatives, saying negotiations over the country’s political future should focus on the departure of the Assad regime.
One day after Ahmad Moaz Khatib expressed his openness to discussion with members of the regime outside the country, the coalition issued a statement reaffirming the group’s charter that “any negotiation or dialogue must be about the departure of the regime and its leading figures.”
It added that it welcomed “any political solution or international effort aimed at achieving that objective.”
Khatib had set down two conditions: the release of 160,000 political prisoners and the renewal of passports for thousands of exiled Syrians at embassies around the world.
Khatib’s proposal generated widescale outrage by many Syrians on social media, although some activists expressed their backing of the idea.
A statement by several dozen dissidents, circulated on social media, urged a “yes to the initiative to free 160,000 brothers, friends, sisters, sons and fathers,” and predicted that the regime would reject Khatib’s proposal.
The official state news agency SANA ignored the issue, but pro-regime daily newspaper Al-Watan termed it a sign of the “disintegration” of the opposition.
In New York, mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he had no plan to return to Damascus and gave a guarded response to Khatib’s offer.
“It is worthy of note,” Brahimi said, adding that the reaction of the government and other opposition figures would be crucial.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the offer by Khatib but said the conflict levels are already “intolerable.”
Brahimi said he would not return to Syria unless developments change.
“If I go to Syria, it’s because there is something that I need to do,” he told the U.N. News Service.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will discuss the carnage in Syria in separate meetings Saturday with Khatib and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the White House said.
Biden will hold the meetings on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, on a trip that will also include talks with the leaders of Germany, France and Britain.
Officials said that Biden, in his meetings in Munich, would discuss getting more humanitarian aid into Syria, where 60,000 people have now been killed in violence which sparked a refugee crisis.
Biden will also discuss the political way forward, and ask Russia for an acknowledgement that the regime of President Bashar Assad must fall.
Britain’s foreign secretary said that he welcomed the surprise declaration by Khatib, urging a diplomatic solution to the crisis. William Hague said dialogue was desirable, but added that any transitional government could not include Assad himself.
“Of course we want to see a political, a diplomatic solution in Syria,” Hague said on his way into a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels. “We’ve always wanted to see, as we agreed in Geneva last year, a transitional government made up of members of the current regime and members of the opposition, based on mutual consent. And mutual consent of course means that Assad could not be part of such a transitional government.”
Meanwhile, London’s call to amend a European Union embargo on arms sales to Syria, in order to help the rebels, met opposition when EU governments warned it could allow weapons to end up in the wrong hands.
A package of EU sanctions against Syria comes up for renewal at the start of March, and Britain, backed among others by France, has said EU rules should be eased to allow some equipment to be sent to the rebels.
But many EU capitals are reluctant to agree any changes, arguing they could open the way for more arms to reach Assad or Islamist groupings among the Syrian opposition.
At a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers agreed to continue discussions on the issue this month to determine what types of equipment, particularly protective gear, can be provided under existing rules and to find a compromise.
“On the one hand we have to support moderate forces of the opposition,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after the meeting. “On the other hand it’s also about avoiding escalating tensions.”
British officials are talking about permitting non-lethal gear such as body armor and night-vision goggles to be sent to the rebels rather than weapons, but other diplomats are concerned that easing the embargo could open the door to sending arms. France has ruled out sending arms.
EU diplomats said several scenarios were under consideration in terms of what help could be offered to the rebels. One possibility would be to allow some shipments to areas under rebel control, while the EU could also draw up a list of permitted equipment, to differentiate between protective gear and weapons.
In Syria, violence and clashes between government troops and rebels claimed at least 80 lives, with around half of the casualties reported in Damascus and surrounding areas. Anti-regime activists reported that three loud explosions were heard in the evening in the upscale neighborhood of Malki, as well as the eastern neighborhood of Tijara, near the Oil Ministry. Both neighborhoods have been relatively free of rebel activity during the 23-month-old uprising.
Fierce clashes have killed at least 21 rebel fighters and 26 regime troops in less than two days in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, a watchdog said.
“The fighting has killed at least 21 rebels, including 12 [non-Syrian] Arab fighters, among them a Nusra Front commander,” said the Britain-based monitoring group.
The clashes also killed “at least 26 regime troops,” it added.
The violence came a day after at least 139 people were killed in violence across Syria, among them 51 civilians, 46 rebel fighters and 42 soldiers, according to the Observatory.