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Syrian National Coalition prepared to negotiate with Assad

Opposition leader says he is prepared to negotiate with Syrian president on the condition that all political prisoners held by his regime are freed in advance. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

DAMASCUS // Moaz al Khatib, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said he was prepared to negotiate with president Bashar Al Assad's regime, on the condition that all political prisoners being held by the security services were freed in advance.

The offer marked a major departure from mainstream opposition strategy that, so far, has included a blanket refusal to sit down with the regime while military operations continued and Mr Al Assad remained in power.

Announced by Mr Al Khatib on his Facebook page yesterday, the proposal appeared to have taken his own coalition partners by surprise - another signal of the divided and poorly organised opposition.

The Syrian National Council, part of the bloc headed by Mr Al Khatib, immediately rejected the initiative, saying it was impossible to negotiate with killers.

Mr Al Khatib said he was prepared to meet representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, with important caveats. First, he said, 160,000 detainees, including all of those held by the feared air force intelligence security branch, must be released.

The second condition was that all Syrians living abroad have their passports reinstated. Many exiled opposition figures have no legal status in Syria.

Mr Al Khatib said the proposal was a "goodwill initiative to seek a political solution to the crisis, to prepare for a transitional phase that prevents any more bloodshed".

It was reaction to a plan by Mr Al Assad calling for rebels to unconditionally surrender and for the opposition to enter negotiations. The Syrian interior ministry this week said opposition figures could return to the country with guarantees of safe passage.

The opposition had derided the plan but Mr Al Khatib's counterproposal seemed designed to show the international community that opponents of Mr Al Assad were not stubbornly refusing all political initiatives in favour of armed insurrection.

While major opposition factions dismissed Mr Al Khatib's proposal, some dissidents and analysts saw it as an attempt to break a damaging, long-running political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.

Russia, a key ally to Mr Al Assad's regime, has consistently blamed the opposition's refusal to negotiate for the worsening crisis. On Wednesday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the opposition's "obsession" with toppling Mr Al Assad was mainly responsible for the conflict, in which more than 65,000 people have been killed.

With his offer, Mr Al Khatib can now say he is not against talks and that, as further sign of his reasonableness, he has not even demanded that military operations cease, or that Mr Al Assad stand down as preconditions.

That potentially puts the onus back on the Syrian president, either to release the prisoners and join the proposed talks, or to explain to his allies in Moscow why he will not do so.

Activists believe many of those taken into detention have, in fact, been executed by the security services, thus Mr Al Khatib's offer is one he has calculating the regime can never agree to.

At least 78 corpses were dragged from a river in the battleground city of  Aleppo on Tuesday, all of them showing signs of being shot at close range. Opposition groups say they were summary executions carried out by the security forces.

State media denied that yesterday, saying the killers were Islamic militants from the rebel Nusra Front.

The proposal to hold negotiations comes a day after UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the UN Security Council that Syria was collapsing.

Mr Brahimi has been trying to broker some kind of deal to end the Syria crisis, something he said had been made impossible by Security Council divisions.

"I told the council I am embarrassed to be saying the same thing," Mr Brahimi told reporters after making a closed-door prevention to diplomats in New York.

"Syria is being destroyed bit by bit," and the "Security Council simply can't continue to say 'we are in disagreement.'"

He brushed aside suggestions he is preparing to resign as Syrian envoy - a job he has described as "almost impossible"

"I'm not a quitter," Mr Brahimi said, "Maybe stupidly, I feel a sense of duty," though "the moment I feel that I am totally useless, I will not stay one minute more."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a diplomat based in Turkey described the UN envoy as "frustrated but not saying so openly", and confirmed rumours were circulating that he was preparing to step down.

"Brahimi has been cursed by the Syrian regime because he spoke the truth" about the violence in the country and the need for political change, the diplomat said.

The Syrian authorities accused the UN envoy of being biased and part of a plot against Syria, after he said the solution to the crisis required Mr Al Assad to surrender all of his powers to a transitional government of which is cannot be a part.

psands@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Thomas Seibert

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