BEIRUT

Middle East

Syrian opposition chief sets conditions for talks

Free Syrian Army fighters run for cover as a tank shell explodes during heavy fighting in Ain Tarma, Damascus.

DAMASCUS: Syria’s opposition chief laid down conditions Wednesday for talks with President Bashar Assad’s regime, as world outrage at a massacre piled pressure on all parties to halt their 22-month conflict.

The surprise move by the head of the National Coalition, Ahmad Moaz Khatib, came after U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the war had reached “unprecedented levels of horror,” and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned of a “catastrophic” situation in Syria.

Khatib said via his Facebook page he was ready for dialogue with officials from Assad’s regime subject to conditions, including that “160,000 detainees” are released and that passports for exiled citizens be renewed in embassies abroad.

Until now, Syria’s main opposition groups have said they are only prepared to enter into dialogue on ways to end the 22-month conflict if Assad steps down.

“I announce I am ready for direct discussions with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul,” said Khatib, who heads the main Syrian opposition umbrella group. “I became aware thanks to the media that the regime in Syria has called on the opposition to enter into dialogue.

“While it is not right for anyone to bargain with the freedom for which our people have paid so dearly in blood, I say there are basic conditions before I sit down with representatives of the regime.”

But he added that “we cannot trust a regime that kills children, attacks bakeries, bombards universities, destroys Syria’s infrastructure and massacres innocent people.”

Assad proposed earlier this month a national dialogue to end Syria’s crisis, but he made it clear this would only apply to groups not linked to the armed insurgency, effectively shutting out the National Coalition.

Khatib said the unprecedented statement expressed his own opinion only and that his group would meet Thursday to discuss the proposal.

An influential opposition group, the Syrian National Council – a key component of the National Coalition – swiftly rejected the proposal.

“The Syrian people have paid – and are still paying – an extremely high price for their full freedom and to get rid of every last remnant of this oppressive, tyrannical regime,” the SNC said, adding that it “rejects any settlement or negotiation with the Syrian regime.”

Khatib said on his Facebook page that he rejected being subject to “intellectual terrorism” in putting forward the controversial proposal. “If anyone thinks that no Syrian wants to hear such ideas, he is deluded,” he added.

The National Coalition had earlier Wednesday lashed out at the “global inaction” which it said was giving Assad’s regime a license to kill, accusing Assad’s forces of being behind the killings of at least 78 people whose bodies were discovered Tuesday in a river in the city of Aleppo.

Witnesses and activists said all the victims had been executed with a single gunshot to the head or neck.

The Syrian authorities accused the jihadist Nusra Front of having carried out the horrifying massacre, but rebels and residents in the area said they had no doubt Assad’s forces were behind the killings.

The National Coalition, the main opposition alliance, called on rights groups to investigate the slaughter and “bring the killers to justice.”

The “ongoing global inaction toward human rights violations in Syria encourages the killers to continue their crimes ... The extreme complacency in the positions of most countries ... gives the green light for the perpetrators of genocide to continue what they are doing.”

The Coalition expressed “shock at the new horrific massacre committed by Assad’s regime against innocent civilians.”

It called on the divided Security Council to refer the issue to The Hague-based International Criminal Court. “The world has abandoned its moral duty and political commitment to the Syrian people, leaving the criminal Syrian regime to kill scores of citizens using the most brutal and cowardly tactics,” the statement said.

In Syria, the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, said at least 110 people were killed in violence around the country.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2013, on page 1.

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