Syrian oppn leader offers Assad peaceful exit

 05 Feb 2013 - 4:44

BEIRUT: Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib urged Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government yesterday to start talks for its departure from power and save the country from greater ruin after almost two years of bloodshed.

Seeking to step up pressure on Assad to respond to his offer of talks — which dismayed some in his own opposition coalition, Alkhatib said he would be ready to meet the president’s deputy.

“I ask the regime to send Farouq Al Shara — if it accepts the idea — and we can sit with him,” he said, referring to Syria’s vice president who has implicitly distanced himself from Assad’s crackdown on mass unrest that became an armed revolt.

Speaking after meeting senior Russian, US and Iranian officials, Alkhatib said none of them had an answer to the 22-month-old crisis and Syrians must solve it themselves. “The issue is now in the state’s court ... to accept negotiations for departure, with fewer losses,” the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Arabiya television.   

The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week that he was prepared to talk to Assad’s representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on opposition contacts with Damascus and angered many in its ranks who insist on Assad’s departure as a precondition for negotiation.

Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.

“The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he said in separate comments to Al Jazeera television.

Assad announced last month what he said were plans for reconciliation talks to end the violence but — in a speech described by UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as narrow and uncompromising — he said there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or “puppets made by the West”.

Syria’s uprising erupted in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests, escalating into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni rebels against Assad, who is from Alawite minority. His family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

The violence has divided major powers, with Russia and China blocking UN Security Council draft resolutions backed by the United States, European Union and Gulf Arab states that could have led to UN sanctions isolating Assad. Iran has remained his strongest regional supporter.

Alkhatib met Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi at a security conference in Germany at the weekend as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Vice President Joe Biden.

“Iran’s stance is unacceptable and I mentioned to the  foreign minister that we are very angry with Iran’s support for the regime,” Alkhatib said.

He said he asked Salehi to pass on his offer of negotiations — based on the acceptance of the Assad government’s departure — to Damascus. “We will find a solution, there are many keys. If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime.”

One proposal under discussion was the formation of a transitional government, Alkhatib said, without specifying how he thought that could come about. World powers agreed a similar formula seven months ago but then disagreed over whether that could allow Assad to stay on as head of state.  

Activists reported clashes between the army and rebel fighters to the east of Damascus and heavy shelling of rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs. The Jobar neighbourhood, on the southwestern edge of Homs, was hit by more than 100 rockets, an opposition activist said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 people were killed by dusk across Syria.  

Rebels and activists say that Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah have sent fighters to reinforce Assad’s army — an accusation that both deny.

“The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside,” Salehi said in Berlin. “We are giving them economic support, we are sending petrol, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq; we have not been successful.”

Another Iranian official, speaking in Damascus, said that Israel would regret an air strike against Syria last week, without spelling out whether Iran or its ally planned a military response. “They will regret this recent aggression,” said Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.