Syrians carry a body in Aleppo's Ansari neighborhood after a reported… (Abdullah al-Yassin / Associated…)
BEIRUT — A faint glimmer of hope of breaking the diplomatic standoff on Syria has emerged as two key allies, Russia and Iran, reacted positively to a leading opposition figure's surprise offer of conditional talks with the government of President Bashar Assad.
Officials from the two countries spoke approvingly of the offer at a global security meeting that ended Sunday in Munich, Germany. At the same time, Israel's defense minister seemed to acknowledge that his country was responsible for last week's airstrike on Syrian territory — an attack that Israel has not officially confirmed but which has raised the ominous specter of a wider regional war.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters at the Munich conference that the attack in Syria was "proof that when we say something, we mean it." The comment was widely interpreted as indirect confirmation that Israeli warplanes conducted the Wednesday strike, which reportedly targeted a Syrian arms convoy destined for the militant group Hezbollah, Syria's ally and Israel's avowed adversary.
His remarks somewhat overshadowed the potentially promising developments on the long-stalled diplomatic front. Both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, seemed to give their blessing to an effort by Syrian opposition figure Moaz Khatib to open talks with Assad.
"This is a very important step, particularly taking into account that the [opposition] coalition was created on a platform of categorical rejection of any conversation with the regime," Lavrov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Moscow and Tehran are widely viewed as the only international interlocutors able to exert influence or pressure on Assad, who has vowed not to step down despite an almost two-year rebellion that has left tens of thousands dead, millions homeless and much of the country in ruins.
Khatib, who heads a Western-backed dissident coalition forged in November, broke a taboo among many opposition advocates and declared last week that he would be willing to speak with Assad's representatives under two conditions — the release of 160,000 Syrian prisoners and the renewal of passports for Syrian exiles. Khatib first made the offer in a Facebook posting, then reiterated it in Munich, where he met with high-ranking Iranian, Russian and U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden.
"As a gesture of goodwill, we say, just to ease the pain of the Syrian people … we are ready to sit at the negotiating table with the regime," Khatib told reporters, adding that he still favored overthrowing Assad "by peaceful means."
Despite the offer, no breakthrough in Syria appears imminent. Many obstacles remain. There are no scheduled negotiations as the fighting drags on.
The United States and its allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have insisted that Assad must go, a condition rejected by Russia, which has used its veto power on three occasions in the United Nations Security Council to block international action against Assad.
In Munich, Biden reiterated the White House position that "President Assad, a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead the Syrian people and he must go."
On the battlefield, however, many experts see a stalemate in which neither side can prevail. The rise of Islamic militants among the fragmented rebel battalions has troubled the White House and helped scuttle proposals to provide sophisticated weaponry to opposition forces.
Meanwhile, Khatib's suggestion of talks with Damascus has caused a backlash among fellow dissidents who insist that Assad must resign before any negotiations can take place. Some have even accused Khatib — a respected Sunni Muslim preacher and an engineer from a well-known family of Islamic scholars in Damascus — of selling out a sacred cause.
Amid the outcry, Khatib said he was speaking for himself, not for the umbrella group that he heads, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. But any formal talks with the Assad government would presumably require the approval of the full coalition.
The Syrian government does not seem likely to comply with Khatib's demands for a wholesale release of prisoners and the renewal of the passports of many of its most bitter expatriate critics. Damascus has yet to comment publicly on Khatib's offer of talks. Assad recently renewed calls for dialogue with the opposition, but he has repeatedly excluded "terrorists," a term he has used broadly against both rebel fighters and their political supporters.
Still, both Russia and Iran seemed to view Khatib's offer as an encouraging development. In private, officials in Moscow and Tehran have reportedly voiced concerns that sticking with Assad could have disastrous consequences if he is ultimately overthrown.