Syria’s opposition has canceled a planned boycott of an international conference on the two-year conflict after appeals from Britain and the US, but rejected an offer of talks from Damascus.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague convinced the opposition to revoke its boycott of a Friends of Syria conference in Rome tomorrow after an appeal at a joint press conference in London.
Syrian National Coalition president Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib said on his Facebook page his group would attend after Kerry and Hague “promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people.”
The Coalition said on Saturday it was withdrawing from the 11-nation meeting and planned visits to Washington and Moscow in protest at the world’s silence over the mounting civilian death toll in Syria.
US Vice President Joe Biden welcomed the opposition’s change of heart on the talks in Rome, where they will meet with Kerry, and said it would be an important opportunity to find ways to support the Syrian people.
In a telephone call with al-Khatib, Biden commended the decision and affirmed the US’ commitment to “a political transition in Syria to a democratic and inclusive post-[Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad government,” the White House said in a statement.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said in Moscow on Monday that the authorities in Damascus were ready to talk to the armed rebels.
“We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms,” he said, the first time a senior official of al-Assad’s regime has made such a proposal.
“We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem,” said Muallem, proposing the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the “external and internal opposition.”
However, the rebel Free Syrian Army’s chief of staff Selim Idriss dismissed Muallem’s offer.
“I am not going to sit down with him [al-Assad] or with any other member of his clique before all the killing stops, or before the army withdraws from the cities,” Idriss told pan-Arab broadcaster al-Arabiya.
Kerry flew into Berlin for talks yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to agree on a way to end the crisis, over which the two countries are deeply divided.
Earlier in London — the first stage of a nine-nation tour of US allies in Europe — Kerry also gave a cool response to Muallem’s offer.
“It seems to me that it’s pretty hard to understand how, when you see these Scuds falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it’s possible to take their notion that they’re ready to have a dialogue very seriously,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 58 people, including 36 children, were killed in a Scud missile strike on Friday on the northern city of Aleppo.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi on Monday denied firing Scud missiles at the rebels, in an interview with Arabic-language Russia Today.
Muallem was in Russia for talks with Lavrov, whose country is one of the few major powers to maintain ties with the Syrian government.
Rebels have been fighting the al-Assad regime since an uprising against his rule in March 2011 and now control large parts of the country, especially in the north. According to the UN, the fighting has claimed 70,000 lives.
Lavrov renewed Russia’s call for rebels and the regime to hold direct talks to end the conflict, warning that pushing for military victory risked destroying the country.