Syria opposition chief seeks talks with regime

Thu, Feb 7, 2013, 00:00

President Assad is being urged to respond to a call for dialogue

The opposition Syrian National Coalition was not formally invited to the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit, which opened yesterday in Cairo. However, the gathering, which ends today, will urge President Bashar al-Assad to respond positively to a surprise call for dialogue from the coalition's president, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib.

Khatib, a former preacher in Damascus's historic Umayyad mosque, told The Irish Times he was waiting for an official response to his initiative, which was greeted negatively by politicians and some commentators in Damascus.

Last night Khatib, according to BBC Arabic, said the Syrian government had until Sunday to release all women detainees, otherwise he would regard his offer for dialogue as rejected by Assad.

When putting forward his proposal last weekend, Khatib said the government must negotiate with the aim to remove Assad from power, end the bloodshed, and launch talks on the release of 160,000 prisoners and the renewal of the passports of opposition activists.

The initiative, he said, was humanitarian. "We will wait a few more days for a reply. If there is none or it is No, the revolution will continue . . . [ This will be] the decision of the regime. It will have the full responsibility [ after] we opened the gate" for dialogue, following talks with US vice-president Joe Biden, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich.

Dialogue

The aim of dialogue, said Khatib, is "to save our homeland, not to save the regime".

He has proposed talks with Syrian vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa, a figure suggested more than a year ago by domestic opposition groups. However, said Khatib, the government had refused to allow Sharaa to conduct talks, and Tehran, an ally of Damascus, had insisted talks should take place in the capital.

Khatib welcomed as "democracy" criticism of his proposal by fellow members of the coalition, which was formed last November, and of the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council, the coalition's main component.

However, these differences reflect continuing divisions and disputes that have dogged the exiled opposition since its establishment in 2011.

Khatib said he believed the mediation effort undertaken by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, with whom he is in constant contact, "is going in a good line. The main point of the Brahimi initiative is to have a transitional government with full authority".

Khatib argued that the Syrian "revolution" would continue with or without support from outside and criticised the international community's expressions of concern over the participation in the revolt by al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and other fundamentalist jihadi groups.

"The international community must take more care of the blood of [ the Syrian] people than the beards of the fighters who are protecting them."

He blamed the appearance of extremists on the silence and inaction of the international community during the two-year-old revolt.

"We say openly all the hands which [ help] collapse the regime will be respected," but Syrians will reject extremist ideology that will destroy Syria's social structure . . . Extreme thinking destroys Islam from the core." His view of Syria's future is as a democratic "Islamic state" where all citizens are equal and their rights respected.

Irish invitation

Ireland's Ambassador to Egypt, Isolde Moylan, who is also accredited to Damascus, yesterday delivered to Khatib an invitation from Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore to visit Dublin for discussions during Ireland's EU presidency.

Khatib thanked the Ambassador, accepted the invitation but could not commit to a date. He has visited Northern Ireland but not the Republic.