DAMASCUS: Russia and the Arab League proposed Wednesday to broker talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar Assad’s regime to try to resolve the country’s civil war, while a missile struck the command center of the main rebel force near Damascus, wounding its leader.
The 23-month-old conflict in Syria, which has killed around 70,000 people and laid waste to the country’s cities, has repeatedly defied international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed.
Wednesday’s offer from Moscow, one of Assad’s closest allies, suggested the regime could be warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin and the Arab League were attempting to establish direct contact between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Sitting down at the negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparably damaging Syria, he added.
“Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it’s a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people,” Lavrov said in Moscow, where he hosted league officials and several Arab foreign ministers.
Both Lavrov and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said their main priority was creating a transitional government in Syria to navigate a way out of the conflict.
No conditions for the Syrian negotiations have been set. Lavrov said both sides’ readiness to begin talks was “the most important thing.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead a delegation to Moscow Monday, and Russia is expecting a visit in March from the opposition Syrian National Coalition leader, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib.
Russia’s proposal Wednesday got a cool reception from the opposition.
“We cannot agree to that,” said Abdel-Baset Sieda, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition. “Assad and his group must go first. After that we can discuss with others in the regime who didn’t share in the killing of our people.”
Still, Wednesday’s proposal was notable because it emanated from Russia – Assad’s chief advocate on the international stage. It is unlikely that Moscow would publicly propose to host talks without having first secured Damascus’ word that it would indeed sit down with the opposition.
The timing might also mean the regime is showing a willingness to negotiate.
Syria’s rebels have notched a series of tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation’s largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking air bases in the northeast. They have also cut off a key highway in Damascus and are making forays to within a mile of the heart of the heavily guarded capital.
The missile attack Wednesday on Liwa al-Islam Brigade, which is spearheading a three-week-old offensive that has given the rebels a foothold inside Damascus, deals a blow to efforts to undermine Assad in his seat of power.
A rebel spokesman said Sheikh Zahran Alloush, founder of the brigade, was wounded but declined to give further details.
“We cannot disclose Sheikh Zahran’s condition,” said the spokesman, Islam Alloush, who is also his cousin.
Activists said the early morning strike took place near the northern Damascus suburb of Douma. The rocket, possibly a Scud-type ballistic missile, devastated the area and killed or wounded other fighters, they said.
A rebel commander fighting with Liwa al-Islam Brigade in Damascus said: “It would be a great loss if Sheikh Alloush is killed. Liwa al-Islam is the most powerful on the ground and Sheikh Alloush is the brains behind its strength.”
Elsewhere in the capital, an air raid hit the suburb of Hammourieh, killing at least 20 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More people were believed to be buried under the debris.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll higher, saying up to 35 were killed and dozens more were wounded.
Amateur videos posted online showed several vehicles on fire as thick black smoke billowed from a street. The videos show the bodies of two people, who were burned, in a pickup truck and the charred corpse of another person lying on the ground.
Earlier, two mortars crashed into a sports complex in the normally calm neighborhood of Baramkeh in central Damascus, killing one football player and wounding three more.
The mortar attack was the second in as many days in Damascus. Two mortars exploded Tuesday near one of Assad’s palaces, but no one was hurt.
The state news agency said the mortars that hit a complex housing Tishrin Stadium and a hotel killed Youssef Suleiman from Al-Wathbah club based in Homs. He was wounded inside the hotel as players were getting ready for practice and died later at a hospital.
Suleiman, a striker, had played internationally on one of Syria’s national youth teams. His teammates said he was the father of a 6-month-old baby.
State TV broadcast video of what it said was the hotel. The explosion blew out the windows on the first floor of the building, and shattered glass covered three beds in one of the rooms in which a bloodied duffle bag lay on the floor.
The violence came as international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced that he had agreed to extend his mission for at least six months.
Brahimi’s first six-month contract with the United Nations and Arab League, in place of Kofi Annan, ends Friday. “Brahimi has agreed a six-month extension,” a U.N. diplomat said on condition of anonymity.