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Syrian opposition sets conditions for talks with Assad

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* Initiative is formulated by coalition president

* Syrian minister due in ally Russia this month

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The Syrian National Coalition opposition group is ready to negotiate a departure for President Bashar al-Assad with any member of his government who has not participated in the crackdown on the uprising, a high-level coalition member said on Friday.

Coalition president Moaz Alkhatib formulated the initiative in broad terms last month without consulting the coalition, catching the 70-member assembly by surprise. A powerful bloc in the coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised group in the political opposition, criticised the initiative as harming the revolution.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Syria's main foreign allies, later this month.

The Russian government hopes Alkhatib will visit soon in search of a breakthrough for the nearly two-year-long conflict which the United Nations estimates has killed almost 70,000 people.

Formal backing by the coalition to Alkhatib's initiative would give it more weight internationally and undermine Assad supporters' argument that the opposition is too divided to be considered a serious player, opposition sources said.

After an overnight meeting of the coalition's 12-member politburo in Cairo, coalition politburo member Walid Bunni said the leadership endorses the Alkhatib initiative but has set guidelines for peace talks to be presented for approval by the full 70-member assembly on Thursday.

Another member of the coalition said the meeting of the full coalition will try to revive plans for a provisional government that had been undermined by divisions within the coalition.

Bunni, one of a handful of liberals in the Islamist-dominated assembly, told Reuters that Assad and his cohorts in the military and intelligence apparatus cannot be part of any negotiations.

"We are willing to negotiate with any civilian official the removal of Bashar and the end of despotism," Bunni said from Cairo.

"Bashar and his cohorts will not be party to any talks. We will not regard those present from the government's side as his representatives," Bunni added.

He said members of Assad's Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since a 1963 coup, can participate in the proposed talks if "their hands are clean of blood".

Bunni said the meeting discussed how to deal with Iran and Russia, Assad's main supporters, after Alkhatib met the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran in Munich this month.

Asked about rumours that Alkhatib could meet Moualem in Moscow, Bunni said no date for Alkhatib's visit has been set and that he was not aware of any possible meeting with the Syrian foreign minister.

Alkhatib said he was willing to hold talks with Assad's representatives in rebel-held areas of northern Syria to try to end the conflict.

FIRST DIRECT GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

In the first direct government response, Syria's minister for "national reconciliation", Ali Haidar, said this week he was willing to travel abroad to meet Alkhatib, the Cairo-based president of the opposition coalition.

But he said the authorities rejected any dialogue that aims "to hand power from one side to another" and insisted that formal negotiation must take place on Syrian soil.

Authorities previously had said they would talk to the "patriotic opposition" - figures who have not allied themselves with the armed rebellion. But most centrist opposition figures have left the country since Abdel-Aziz al-Khayyer, a proponent of dialogue and non-violence, was arrested last year.

Alkhatib has headed the Syrian National Coalition since it was founded last December in Qatar with Western and Gulf backing. He has quietly built a student following and links with civic and religious figures cross Syria. (Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Michael Roddy)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130214/syrian-opposition-sets-conditions-talks-assad