Syria opposition ponders course as leader offers talks
AMMAN (Reuters) - Members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have called for an emergency meeting to discuss a controversial proposal by its head to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's government, opposition sources said.
Sheikh Moaz Alkhatib, the moderate Islamic cleric who leads the 70-member assembly, said he would be ready to meet Assad's ceremonial deputy, Farouq al-Shara, if Assad fulfils conditions including the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners.
"The Coalition needs to convene to chart an urgent strategy after the reverberations of the initiative and seize on the momentum it has created, regardless of the reservations of some members," one Coalition official said.
While some opposition figures have criticised Alkhatib's offer to talk to Assad's representatives, others say it could expose Assad's proposals for dialogue as hollow.
"The initiative is proving to the international community that Assad is not willing to compromise one millimetre and we need to take advantage of that," the official said.
Thirty members of the Coalition have sent a letter to its leadership demanding an emergency meeting for the whole assembly, according to Coalition sources.
Ahead of surprise meetings last weekend between Alkhatib and the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, Assad's main backers, the Coalition abandoned its policy of refusing to talk with the Assad regime unless Assad stepped down first.
The Syrian National Council, a powerful block dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood inside the Coalition, said Alkhatib made an "individual decision" by launching the initiative, which contradicts the Coalition's charter calling for "the downfall of the regime with all its symbols and components."
The statement said Alkhatib's meeting with the Iranian foreign minister was a "stab to the revolution."
But an official in the Council said it was reluctant to call for the removal of Alkhatib because his initiative had support in the street.
"Alkhatib seems to be in tune with popular mood but the Council feels that the initiative is all over the place and it needs to be defined in writing," the official said.
"The Council will sit tight and wait for the initiative to hit a wall when it becomes clear that Assad is not implementing anything and the prisoners are still languishing in his jails."
Speaking after the meetings, at an international security conference in Munich, Alkhatib said neither Russia nor Iran had an answer to the 22-month-old crisis and Syrians must solve it themselves. A spokesman for the Coalition described the meeting with Iran as a failure.
The Coalition, formed with Western and Gulf backing last year, has a "collegiate" leadership, and Alkhatib is a first among equals, rather than outright head.
Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition campaigner who worked with Alkhatib on human rights in Syria before the revolt, said the initiative could prove an astute move because it puts the onus on foreign governments to act.
"Russia and Iran and even many in the rest of the international community so far have shown no willingness to put any serious pressure on Assad to accept a political solution," Tello told Reuters from Berlin.
Syrian authorities have remained silent on the initiative, but the semi-official al-Watan newspaper said on Tuesday Alkhatib was not acceptable as a negotiator.
Bassam Ishaq, One of several opposition campaigners outside the Coalition who have announced support for the Alkhatib initiative, said the newspaper's line was a good indication that Assad and the ruling elite have rejected the proposal.
"Alkhatib is being criticised for not consulting the Coalition enough, but he has managed in one stroke to wrong-foot Assad and show Arab and Western countries that have been pressuring the opposition to negotiate, that the opposition is open to a political settlement but the Assad regime is not," Ishaq said in Amman.
One of the 12 members of the Coalition's politburo said Alkhatib's initiative had popular support in Syria but needed to be "politically more sophisticated".
He said the politburo, the Coalition's highest decision-making body, was due to meet on February 14 to be briefed by Alkhatib but the whole 70-member Coalition was likely to meet in an emergency session before then.
Burhan Ghalioun, one of the few secular liberals in the Coalition, said he was concerned the initiative could weaken opposition fighters on the ground.
"Lots of friendly countries or those who claim friendship for the Syrian people were waiting for this exact kind of initiative to justify their failure to deliver on military support for the revolt and the protection of civilians," Ghalioun said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy)
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