Syria 'ready for talks with rebels'
A man sits among rubble as he sells diesel in Aleppo today. Photograph: Hamid Khatib/Reuters
Syria is ready for talks with its armed opponents, foreign minister Walid al-Moualem said today, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
But Mr Moualem said at the same time Syria would pursue its fight "against terrorism", alluding to the conflict with rebels in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed.
His offer of talks drew a dismissive response from US secretary of state John Kerry, who was starting a nine-nation tour of European and Arab capitals in London.
"It seems to me that it's pretty hard to understand how, when you see the Scuds falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it is possible to take their notion that they are ready to have a dialogue very seriously," Mr Kerry said.
He said US president Barack Obama was evaluating more steps to "fulfil our obligation to innocent people", without giving details or saying whether Washington was reconsidering whether to arm the rebels, an option it has previously rejected.
"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind," Mr Kerry said.
Mr Obama has carefully avoided deeper US involvement in Syria, at the heart of a volatile Middle East, as he has withdrawn troops from Iraq and extracts them from Afghanistan.
Dr Assad and his foes are locked in a bloody stalemate after nearly two years of combat, destruction and civilian suffering that threatens to destabilise neighbouring countries.
Mr Moualem said in Moscow that Damascus was 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, which reported his remarks, did not say if Mr Moualem had attached any conditions for the dialogue.
"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."
Moaz Alkhatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told reporters in Cairo he had not been in touch with Damascus following Mr Moualem's offer. "We have not been in contact yet, and we are waiting for communication with them," he said.
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.
The opposition says any solution must involve the removal of Dr Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970. Disparate rebel fighters, who do not answer to Alkhatib or other politicians in exile, insist that Dr Assad must go before any talks start.
Brigadier Selim Idris, a rebel military commander, told Al Arabiya television that a ceasefire, Dr Assad's exit, and the trial of his security and military chiefs must precede any talks.
Damascus has rejected any preconditions and the two sides lso differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in rebel-held parts of Syria, while the government says they must be in territory it controls.