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Syria says ready for talks with armed rebels

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Syrian regime is ready for talks with armed rebels and anyone who favours dialogue, President Bashar al-Assad's foreign minister said in Moscow on Monday, in the first such offer by a top Syrian official.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of the few big powers to still maintain ties with Assad's regime.

Russia has renewed calls for rebels and regime to engage in direct negotiations to end the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, warning that pressing for a military victory risked destroying Syria.

"We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms," Muallem said at the talks with Lavrov.

Armed rebels have battled the Assad regime since the start of the opposition's uprising against his rule in March 2011 and now control swathes of Syrian territory.

"We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem," said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the "external and internal opposition."

-- 'The state risks collapsing' --

Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

"There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition," said Lavrov.

Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was "at the crossroads", with different factions pressing for conflict and talks. But he expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

"There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society," he said.

"But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

"The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing," said Lavrov.

He warned that there was no point for the sides trying to fight towards a "victorious end" and warned Assad's regime not to give into what Lavrov termed "provocations".

Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on Assad's regime to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community's inability to halt the bloodshed.

While Khatib has offered to talk to regime officials without "blood on their hands", the National Coalition has said Assad and the top military command cannot be part of any solution.

After Muallem's statement on Monday, the Free Syrian Army's chief of staff Selim Idriss said that before any dialogue could begin, Assad's regime must fall, among other pre-conditions.

"I am not going to sit down with him or with any other member of his clique before all the killing stops, or before the army withdraws from the cities," he told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya.

-- 'Russia can play a key role' --

The Moscow talks came a day before Russia’s top diplomat meets new US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin for the first time, with the Syria crisis topping the agenda.

"We feel that Russia can play a key role in convincing the (Syrian) regime that there is need for political transition," said a State Department official travelling with Kerry.

Kerry meanwhile urged the Khatib-led Syrian opposition to withdraw its threat to pull out of an international meeting in Rome on Thursday that Kerry will attend.

Khatib said on Saturday it was pulling out of the 11-nation meeting of the Friends of Syria to protest at the "shameful" inaction of the international community in the face of civilian killings.

"I would urge the Syrian opposition to join us as a matter of practicality and of informing us," Kerry told a news conference in London, promising the rebels that "we are coming to Rome to make a decision on next steps".

Throughout the conflict, opposition by Russia and its diplomatic ally China has prevented attempts by the West to pass UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Assad's regime.

The diplomatic activity came as there appeared to be no let-up in the fighting which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130225/syria-says-ready-talks-armed-rebels-1