BEIRUT – Syria said Monday it is prepared to hold talks with armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects to hold onto power as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.
Meanwhile, the umbrella group for Syrian opposition parties said it had reversed a decision to boycott a conference in Rome being held to help drum up financial and political support for the opposition. Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, said the move came after a phone call between the group’s leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Al-Bunni told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya the decision was made based on guarantees al-Khatib heard from Western diplomats that the conference would be different this time. He did not elaborate. The boycott had put the group at odds with its Western backers.
The Syrian talks offer, made by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, came hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire.
State-run news agency SANA said there were multiple casualties from the explosion, which it said was a suicide car bombing. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group in Britain, said the explosions targeted a checkpoint, adding there were initial reports of at least five regime forces killed and several wounded.
The talks proposal marked the first time a high-ranking regime official has stated publicly that Damascus would be willing to meet with the armed opposition. But al-Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to lay down their weapons before negotiations could begin – a crucial sticking point in the past.
The regime’s proposal is unlikely to lead to talks. The rebels battling the Syrian military have vowed to stop at nothing less than Assad’s downfall and are unlikely to agree to sit down with a leader they accuse of mass atrocities.
But the timing of the proposal suggests the regime is warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost to the rebels in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.