Middle East

Opposition chief willing to hold talks in northern Syria

Members of the Free Syrian Army stand on a checkpoint beside the Al-Moshat school wall in Aleppo, February 10, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

AMMAN/BEIRUT: Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Moaz alKhatib said Sunday he was willing to hold talks with Bashar Assad’s representatives in rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

The talks’ objective would be to find a way for Assad to leave power with the “minimum of bloodshed and destruction,” Khatib said in a statement published on his Facebook page.

“If the regime is so concerned about sovereignty and does not want to venture out of Syrian territories then there is a suitable solution, which is the liberated land in northern Syria,” he said.

“There is an important question: Will the regime agree to leave with the minimum of blood and destruction?”

In Cairo Sunday, Khatib met with international peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss the opposition leader’s initiative for talks with the Assad regime, according to a U.N. statement. The statement said the envoy “reiterated his support for [Khatib’s] initiative and encouraged the coalition to continue in this direction.”

As talks came to a close Sunday evening, activists said Khatib’s house in Damascus had been torched, Sky News reported.

As Khatib renewed his offer of dialogue, opposition forces targeted Damascus with mortars, a roadside bomb and a suicide attack as they pressed ahead in their quest for the seat of Assad’s power.

Outside the capital, government troops battled rebels for the fifth straight day for control of a key highway. Both sides consider the fight for Damascus the most likely endgame in a nearly 2-year-old civil war that has already killed more than 60,000 people.

Sunday’s fighting was the heaviest in Damascus since the first rebel push into the capital in July. The rebels then managed to capture several neighborhoods, but were soon bombed out during a punishing government counter-offensive.

Since then, the rebels have threatened the heavily fortified capital from opposition strongholds around the city. But Damascus has been spared the kind of violence and destruction that has been seen in other major urban centers during the conflict.

Checkpoints on the main artery into the capital have changed hands several times since Wednesday when the latest rebel campaign for Damascus started. The road is strategically important because it leads to northern Syria and the regime uses it to move troops and supplies. Rebels cut the road off from Damascus with burning tires Friday after seizing checkpoints from regime troops in fighting that brought the civil war within a mile of the heart of the capital.

A rebel fighter told the Associated Press that opposition forces Sunday overran another roadblock, Al-Adnan checkpoint in Jobar, northeast of Damascus. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

But the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime activist group, said that while the fight for the highway continues, government troops regained control of the area Sunday after using fighter jets to bomb rebel positions the day before.

A mortar that hit a Damascus street near Shabandar Square killed four people and wounded several others, a government official told AP on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief the media.

State-run SANA news agency said a roadside bomb detonated at Arnous street, in the heart of Damascus, injuring several people. In another part of the city, a suicide bomber blew himself up. He was the only one who died in the blast in Rukn al-Din neighborhood, the official news service said.

Also Sunday, rebels fought a fierce battle with troops for control of a military airport and artillery base that houses the Syrian army’s 113th Brigade just outside the city of Deir alZor, the Observatory said. The Observatory said the rebels were using tanks they previously captured from the military in their assault on the regime’s outposts in the city.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi reiterated the regime’s mantra that the only solution to the conflict is national dialogue in Syria, among Syrians, without foreign interference and in line with Assad’s peace proposal that would keep him in charge of a reconciliation process.

“There is absolutely no other alternative,” Zoubi said in Damascus.

Late Friday, Zoubi said Damascus was ready for dialogue with the opposition so long as the rebels lay down their weapons. He said anyone who responds will not be harmed.

The initiative is unlikely to gain any traction among the Syrian opposition and fighters on the ground, a highly decentralized force with weak links to the political leaders that deeply distrusts the regime. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2013, on page 1.




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