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Assad Can Avoid Trial by Leaving, Coalition Says
Hania Mourtada and Rick Gladstone
4 February 2013
Syria’s opposition coalition gave qualified backing on Monday to its leader’s surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country.
Although the offer made by the opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, was by his own admission a personal gambit and was initially greeted with a torrent of criticism inside the Syrian opposition movement, his colleagues in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces basically endorsed it over the weekend. (…)
Sheik Khatib, a respected Sunni cleric in exile who once was the head imam at the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, said he would engage in dialogue with Mr. Assad’s government only if it released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports held by members of the Syrian diaspora, which includes large numbers of dissidents.
On Sunday, an aide to Mr. Assad gave a vague response. The aide, Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister of national reconciliation, said in an interview with Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed news organization sympathetic to Syria’s government, that the government was open to talks with any opposition members who reject violence. He also said it was willing to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Mr. Haidar said the 160,000 figure was exaggerated and asked Sheik Khatib to send a list of prisoner names.
The Syrian opposition, which considers Mr. Assad a brutal dictator responsible for the estimated 60,000 or more deaths in the nearly two-year conflict, had long contended that there could be no talks with his government until he resigned. While the opposition is still saying Mr. Assad’s departure must be part of any political settlement to end the conflict, it is no longer a precondition for talks. (…)
“We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” Sheik Khatib said in the interview. “It is now in the hands of the regime.” (…)
In a separate interview later with the Al Arabiya news network, Sheik Khatib also suggested that Mr. Assad could appoint as an emissary his vice president, Farouk al-Shara, a longtime member of Mr. Assad’s hierarchy who has been mentioned before by Arab diplomats as a possible political transition leader. The sheik said Mr. Shara’s hands were not “stained with blood.” (…)
Sheik Khatib sought to strengthen his political credentials at a regional security conference held in Munich over the weekend. He met separately with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, the Assad government’s strongest foreign supporters.
In what appeared to be a gesture of good will timed to coincide with those meetings, Syrian rebels released two abducted Russian workers and an Italian citizen in exchange for captured rebel fighters. The news of the exchange, reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, did not specify how many rebels had been part of the deal. (…)
In a new indication of the deprivations faced by Syrian civilians, Unicef said Monday that a large-scale operation was under way to provide safe water to more than 10 million people in the country, nearly half the population. Unicef said trucks loaded with chlorination supplies were heading for Homs, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, with further plans for distribution of 1,000 tons of chlorination supplies throughout Syria. (…)


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