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The site of the bombing in central Damascus, yesterday.
CAIRO: The opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal under US and Russian auspices to end the country’s civil war but President Bashar Al Assad cannot be a party to any settlement, a document drafted for an opposition meeting said.
The meeting of the 70-member Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition began yesterday before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Assad’s last foreign allies, and as UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi renews efforts for a deal.
The opposition front convened in Cairo on a day when a car bomb jolted central Damascus, killing 53 people, wounding 200 and incinerating cars on a busy highway close to the Russian Embassy and offices of the ruling Baath Party.
Syrian state television blamed the suicide blast on “terrorists”. Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from the 23-month conflict that has killed around 70,000 people, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.
In the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, activists said warplanes bombed the old quarter for the first time since March 2011, when the town set in a wheat-growing plain rose up against Assad, starting a national revolt.
A rebel officer in the Tawheed Al Janoub brigade which led an offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes yesterday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed, including eight rebel fighters.
Coalition member Munther Makhos, who was forced into exile in the 1970s for his opposition to Assad’s father, the late Hafez Al Assad, said supplies from Iran and Russia were giving government forces an awesome firepower advantage.
“It would be surreal to imagine that a political solution is possible. Bashar Al Assad will not send his deputy to negotiate his removal. But we are keeping the door open,” Makhos said.
The draft SNC political document, seen by Reuters, omitted a direct demand for Assad’s removal, in a softening of tone from past positions that insisted the president must go before there could be any negotiations.
The document said Assad and his cohorts must be held accountable for bloodshed, and that any peace deal must be under the auspices of the United States and Russia.
“Bashar Al Assad and the military and security apparatus commands are responsible for the decisions that have led the country to what it is now, are outside the political process and are not part of any political solution in Syria,” it said.
“They have to be held accountable for the crimes they have committed.”
The initiative comes from coalition president Moaz Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who played a role in the peaceful protest movement against Assad at the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
Alkhatib’s supporters say the initiative has popular support inside Syria from people who want to see a peaceful departure of Assad and a halt to the war that has increasingly pitted Assad’s Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, against Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
But rebel fighters on the ground, over whom Alkhatib has little control, are generally against the proposal.
The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which represents armed brigades, said in a statement it was opposed to Alkhatib’s initiative because it ignored the revolt’s goal of “the downfall of the regime and all its symbols”.