Syria is ready for talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with opposition forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
But Moualem said at the same time Syria would pursue its fight “against terrorism,” alluding to the conflict with the opposition in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed. Assad and his foes are locked in a bloody stalemate after nearly two years of combat, destruction and civilian suffering.
“We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it...Even with those who have weapons in their hands. Because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue,” Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted Moualem as saying.
He was speaking in Moscow at a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia is a staunch ally of Assad.
Moaz Alkhatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said in Cairo he had not had held any contacts about talks with Damascus, but had postponed trips to Russia and the United States “until we see how things develop.”
Syria's government and the political opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts - softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict which has driven nearly a million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.
But the opposition has said any political solution must be based on the removal of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970. Opposition fighters, who do not answer to Alkhatib, are even more insistent that Assad must go before any talks start.
Brig. Selim Idris, head of an opposition military command, demanded a complete ceasefire, the president's departure and the trial of his security and military chiefs as preconditions for negotiations. “We will not go [into talks] unless these demands are realised,” he told Al Arabiya Television.
Damascus has rejected any preconditions for talks aimed at ending the violence, which started as a peaceful pro-democracy uprising in March 2011 inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
The two sides also differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in opposition-held parts of Syria. Assad's government says any serious dialogue must be held on Syrian territory under its control.
Adding to the difficulty of any negotiated settlement is the lack of influence that Syria's political opposition -- mostly operating outside the country -- has over opposition forces inside.
“We are following the development of events ... with alarm,” Lavrov said. “In our evaluation the situation is at a kind of crossroads. There are those who have set a course for further bloodshed and an escalation of conflict. This is fraught with the risk of the collapse of the Syrian state and society.
“But there are also reasonable forces that increasingly acutely understand the need for the swiftest possible start of talks ... In these conditions the need for the Syrian leadership to continue to consistently advocate the start of dialogue, and not allow provocations to prevail, is strongly increasing.”
Lavrov's warning that the Syrian state could founder appeared aimed to show that Russia is pressing Assad's government to seek a negotiated solution while continuing to lay much of the blame for the persistent violence on his opponents.
Russia has distanced itself from Assad and has stepped up its calls for dialogue as his prospects of retaining power have decreased, but insists that his exit must not be a precondition.
Itar-Tass did not report any other comments by Syria's Moualem on the chances for talks or on any conditions attached.
“What's happening in Syria is a war against terrorism,” the agency quoted him as saying. “We will strongly adhere to a peaceful course and continue to fight against terrorism.”
The Syrian National Coalition said on Friday it was willing to negotiate a peace deal, but insisted Assad could not be party to it -- a demand that the president looks sure to reject.
UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Assad had told him he intended to remain president until his term ends in 2014 and would then run for re-election.
The political chasm between the government and opposition forces and a lack of opposition influence over its fighters has allowed fighting to rage on for 23 months in Syria, while international diplomatic deadlock has prevented effective intervention. Moualem's comments echoed remarks last week by Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, who said he was ready to meet the armed opposition. But Haidar drew a distinction between what said might be “preparatory talks” and formal negotiations.
Assad, announcing plans last month for a national dialogue to address the crisis, said that there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or “puppets made by the West.”
Moualem made his remarks a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry began a nine-nation tour of European and Arab nations in which the Syria conflict will be a main focus.
Kerry was due to meet Lavrov in Berlin later on Tuesday and Syrian opposition leaders at a conference in Rome on Thursday, although it is unclear whether all will attend amid internal rows over the value of such international meetings while violence goes on.