MUNICH/BEIRUT: Syria’s opposition leader flew back to his Cairo headquarters from Germany Sunday to explain to skeptical allies his decision to talk with President Bashar Assad’s main backers Russia and Iran.
Russian and Iranian foreign ministers, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile welcomed Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s new willingness to talk with the Assad regime as a major breakthrough toward resolving the two-year-old conflict.
“If we want to stop the bloodshed we cannot continue putting the blame on one side or the other,” Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi said, welcoming Khatib’s overtures and adding that he was ready to keep talking to the opposition. Iran is Assad’s main military backer together with Russia.
“This is a very important step. Especially because the coalition was created on the basis of categorical rejection of any talks with the regime,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russia’s Itar Tass news agency.
Russia has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing Assad out or pressuring him to end a civil war in which more than 60,000 people have died. Over 125 people, some 78 of them civilians were killed in fighting across Syria on Sunday alone, according to an opposition monitoring group.
But Moscow has also tried to distance itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.
Syrian state media said Assad received a senior Iranian official and told him Syria could withstand “threats ... and aggression” like an air attack on a military base last week, which Damascus has blamed on Israel.
Assad accused the Jewish state of trying to further destabilize his war-torn country after Israel implicitly confirmed it staged an airstrike on Syria last week.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak refrained from explicitly confirming that Israel staged the strike, but told reporters in Munich it was “another proof that when we say something we mean it.”
“We say that we don’t think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon,” Barak said.
A fierce critic of both Assad and Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of waging “state terrorism” as he condemned the strike as an unacceptable violation of international law. In Munich, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey continued support for the Syrian opposition, saying its leaders should not be pressured into talks with the regime.
“It is easy to say now, [the] opposition should accept to sit with the regime, after 60,000 people have been killed,” Davutoglu said.
Politicians from the United States, Europe and the Middle East at the Munich Security Conference praised Khatib’s “courage.”
But the moderate Islamist preacher was likely to face sharp criticism from the exiled leadership back in Cairo.
Khatib has put his leadership on the line by saying he would be willing to talk to representatives of the Assad regime on condition they release 150,000 prisoners and issue passports to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have fled to neighboring countries but do not have documents.
Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition’s 12-member politburo, described Khatib’s meeting with Iran’s foreign minister as a failure.
“It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution,” Bunni told Reuters from Budapest.
Bunni said the 70-member Coalition is preparing to convene in full in Cairo, to be briefed by Khatib on his latest diplomatic moves.
Khatib is seen as a bulwark against Salafist forces who are a main player in the armed opposition.
He was chosen as the head of the Coalition in Qatar last year, with crucial backing from the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of Khatib’s colleagues on the Coalition politburo pointed to comments by Salehi and Lavrov Sunday, a day after their meetings with Khatib, as evidence that they still backed Assad.
Salehi told the Munich conference where the round of talks took place that the solution was to hold elections in Syria – making no mention of Assad having to leave the country.
Firm opposition backers like Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani and U.S. Republican Senator John McCain voiced frustration in Munich at the international community’s reluctance to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
“We consider the U.N. Security Council directly responsible for the continuing tragedy of the Syrian people, the thousands of lives that were lost, the blood that was spilled and is still flowing at the hands of the regime’s forces,” said Hamad.
Moscow played down the significance of the discussions in Munich, with one Russian diplomatic source calling the talks between Lavrov and Khatib “simply routine meetings.”
“We have presented our views when Minister Lavrov meet Khatib, we have noted his comments that there is still a chance for dialogue with Syrian government. That is something we have called for,” the Russian source said.
One source in Khatib’s delegation said the offer of dialogue would find an echo among Syrians opposed to Assad who have not taken up arms “and want to get rid of him with the minimum bloodshed.”
Asked about the risk of his strategy being seen as a sign of weakness in the opposition or frustration at the Free Syrian Army’s gains, Khatib told Reuters in Munich: “The fighters have high morale and they are making daily advances.”