Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Syrian Opposition Suggests Talks ; Leader's Offer Comes with Conditions and Provokes Criticisms

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Syrian Opposition Suggests Talks ; Leader's Offer Comes with Conditions and Provokes Criticisms

Article excerpt

Syria's top political opposition leader on Wednesday expressed willingness to talk with representatives of President Bashar al- Assad. It was a tentative opening in an increasingly chaotic civil war.

Syria's top political opposition leader on Wednesday expressed willingness for the first time to talk with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad, softening what had been an absolute refusal to negotiate with the government in an increasingly chaotic civil war.

The opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, coupled his offer with two demands: the release of what he described as 160,000 prisoners held by Mr. Assad's government, and the renewal of all expired passports held by Syrians abroad -- a gesture apparently aimed at disaffected expatriates and exiled opposition figures who could not return home even if they wanted to.

Sheik Khatib's offer, published in Arabic on his Facebook page, quickly provoked sharp criticism from others in the Syrian opposition coalition, with some distancing themselves and complaining that the leader had not consulted with colleagues in advance. The sheik later clarified in a second statement that he was expressing his personal opinion, while he chided critics among his colleagues whom he described as "those sitting down on their couches and then saying, 'Attack -- don't negotiate."'

Nonetheless, the offer still represented a potential opening for dialogue in a nearly two-year-old conflict that has threatened to destabilize the Middle East.

The conflict's potential to entangle neighbors was underscored on Wednesday with unconfirmed reports that Israeli warplanes had bombed a truck convoy in Syria that had been headed for the Lebanon border. The Associated Press quoted unidentified regional and U.S. officials as saying the target was a shipment of weapons, including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, possibly meant for delivery to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is aligned with Mr. Assad and considers Israel its main enemy.

Israeli, Lebanese and American defense officials all declined to comment on the report, but the Lebanese Army issued a statement that four Israeli aircraft had violated Lebanon's airspace at least twice Wednesday.

Sheik Khatib made the offer as the United Nations was scrambling to raise money to manage the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, which has sent at least 700,000 Syrians into neighboring countries and left more than one million people displaced inside Syria. A donor conference under way in Kuwait has produced commitments for about $1 billion of the $1.5 billion that the United Nations is seeking.

"I announce that I am willing to sit down with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo or Tunisia or Istanbul," Sheik Khatib said in the offer. …

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