Pressure mounted Tuesday on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respond to a surprise offer of talks by his main political opponents aimed at ending warfare in which tens of thousands of people have died.
Assad himself has yet to comment on the olive branch from Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, but pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper described it as a political “maneuver” that comes two years too late.
Khatib told pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera on Monday that “the ball is now in the regime’s court. They will either say yes or no.”
He was following up on his announcement last week that he was ready for dialogue with the Damascus regime - subject to conditions, including the release of 160,000 detainees - on ways to end the conflict that has ravaged Syria since March 2011.
He later elaborated, telling Al-Arabiya news channel he was ready to meet Assad’s deputy, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa.
In the past the opposition has demanded Assad step down before talks can begin but analysts say Khatib’s change in stance stems from a belief that the population will be bled dry while the West fails to act.
Experts have also predicted that Khatib’s overture will be rejected outright by Damascus, with Assad unlikely to accept his conditions for talks.
Giving hint of what is likely to be official reaction to the proposal, Al-Watan said Tuesday that Khatib's offer came too late.
“Despite their importance, the statements of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib are two years late. During that time, our finest young men have died, suffered wounds or been exiled, while we have lost our electricity and fuel infrastructure, alongside several military positions,” it said in a long editorial.
“Two years have gone by, in which we have lost a lot because of the opposition’s stubbornness and their refusal to negotiate,” said the daily.
“So the ball is not in the Syrian state’s hands, as Khatib said,” Al-Watan added.
Washington gave strong backing to Khatib’s call for dialogue.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that if the Syrian regime is interested in peace “it should sit down and talk now with the ... Coalition, and we would strongly support al-Khatib in that call.”
But she stressed to journalists in Washington that the U.S. position remained unchanged on bringing to account those, on both sides, who have committed atrocities.
Assad last month announced he was ready for talks with the opposition but ruled out meeting groups such as Khatib’s National Coalition, which backs armed rebels seeking to overthrow his regime.
Some opposition figures, including members of the National Coalition, have denounced Khatib’s proposal as traitorous.
But the opposition leader on Monday rejected the criticism, saying: “Our people are dying, and we will not allow that.”
Fresh violence meanwhile, erupted Tuesday in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels clashed with troops near an army barracks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In the countryside surrounding Aleppo, once Syria’s thriving commercial capital but now ravaged by war, troops also shelled the rebel-held towns of Al-Bab and Sfeira, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Battles pitting rebels against troops broke out at dawn Tuesday ... near the Mahlab army barracks (in Aleppo) ... while army tanks shelled the area. Both sides have sustained casualties,” said the Observatory, which relies on a broad network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its information.
It gave no further details of the casualties.
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the outbreak of a revolt in March 2011 that morphed into an insurgency after the army launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.