Under pressure, Syria opposition makes overture

Syria's exiled opposition has for the first time agreed on the concept of dialogue with the regime, while maintaining its insistence on President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, ahead of key US-Russian talks on the Syrian conflict.

Key Assad backer Moscow and opposition supporter Washington have increased pressure on the rival parties to moderate their stand and reach a political solution to the 22-month conflict.

On Thursday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition declared at a meeting in Cairo that it welcomed "any political solution or international effort" aimed at Assad's departure.

The stand came after its leader Moaz al-Khatib's surprise announcement that he was ready for "direct discussions with representatives of the Syrian regime".

Analysts say the SNC had to keep up its insistence on the departure of Assad or risk losing support on the streets, but leading dissidents have also started to lose hope in a military solution.

"Khatib seems to have realised a military solution is unlikely at this stage," Paris-based expert Karim Bitar told AFP.

While the international community piles on the pressure for a diplomatic way-out, the hardships of ordinary Syrians on the ground have increased with neither the army nor the rebels scoring a significant breakthrough.

More than 60,000 people have been killed and 700,000 have fled abroad in a mounting humanitarian catastrophe, the United Nations says.

"Any initiative that alleviates some of the people's pain and suffering is very useful, especially now that we are going through such disillusionment," said anti-regime activist Abu Hisham.

"When will we get rid of inflexibility in our mindsets? When will we stop repeating slogans that have no meaning?" he said on Facebook, adding that he agreed to Khatib's attached demand on the release of 160,000 detainees.

To stop the violence and destruction, Damascus-based activist Matar Ismail said he agreed with Khatib's proposal.

Khatib has been "influenced by the dominant international rhetoric", rejecting military aid to the opposition, according to Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

This weekend, world leaders, ministers and top military brass are to gather in Munich for security talks focused on Syria.

US Vice President Joe Biden is to meet in the German city with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Khatib.

Echoing a widespread belief that only a US-Russian agreement can end the deadlocked Syrian crisis, an opposition spokesman said a political solution was "taking shape", though he did not elaborate.

But analysts remain sceptical that dialogue will lead anywhere, so long as the conflict remains polarised.

In a rare speech earlier in January, the beleaguered Assad said he was willing to enter into talks with the opposition but complained he could find no negotiating partner.

By showing he is willing to negotiate, on condition that 160,000 detainees are released and exiled Syrians allowed to renew their passports, Khatib is "demonstrating a certain openness", Paris-based Bitar said.

This allows him to accuse the regime of intransigence in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, he said. "But by demanding the release of detainees, he has set the bar very high and he knows for sure that the regime will refuse."