BEIRUT -- Despite offers by the leader of an umbrella group for Syria’s opposition to negotiate with the Syrian government, such talks are unlikely in the short term for a number of reasons, including two of the opposition’s key demands.
Sheik Mouaz al Khatib, the leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the United States and more than 70 other countries recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, said over the weekend that he would be willing to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Assad through an intermediary. The offer was hailed by the United States and represented a change in the opposition’s positions on talks, which previously had required that Assad step down before negotiations could begin.
But Khatib’s offer contains conditions that for the Assad government are only slightly less unacceptable: the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and the promise to issue new passports to members of Syria’s opposition diaspora.
After initial criticism of his overture by other opposition politicians, Khatib reiterated the offer but added that the talks would have to focus on Assad stepping down, another demand the government is unlikely to meet.
Nonetheless, Khatib’s offer seemed a deft way to speak both to Syrians who are tiring of the war and lawlessness and shortages that have plagued some areas under opposition control, and to government supporters, particularly Christian and Shiite and Alawite Muslims, minority groups that believe Assad represents a bulwark against Sunni Muslim extremism that would threaten their existence in Syria.
“His overture is tactical in nature. It’s hard to see Bashar accepting the release of 160,000 prisoners or issuing passports to the opposition," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So much of the opposition which is fighting him needs to travel freely outside Syria.”
Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, one of the largest factions within the Syrian Opposition Coalition, dismissed the offer as unlikely to succeed.
“It is clear that only military force will remove Assad,” Ziadeh said.
On Tuesday, Fayez Sayegh, a member of Parliament from Syria’s ruling party, rejected the preconditions for talks in an interview with the Associated Press.
Others were slightly more optimistic.
“Perhaps it is the beginning of a dialogue about a mechanism to prevent further destruction and bloodshed,” said Murad Shami, a spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committees in Damascus, an opposition organization that often tries to provide civil administration in rebel held areas.
Shami said he expected some rebel groups to reject the idea.
“If there is nothing concrete, the fighters will not stop their attempts to free more territory,” he said.
Khatib, a cleric who formerly served as the imam at Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque and was jailed for supporting the uprising against Assad in its early stages, has sought to strike a conciliatory tone toward the country’s minorities since the beginning. But in the face of the fighting taking place inside Syria and both sides girding for more, reconciliation appears a long way off.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, said last week that political efforts to end the fighting were essentially stalled, and the Syrian government’s most recent statements point toward a belief that it can maintain control of urban centers and other areas through the use of air power and deployment of pro-government militia to support the Syrian army.
“Khatib’s offer of talks with Assad’s government offered a ray of hope to many Syrians, not least of all the minorities. They believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that they are fighting for their lives,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It is true that Assad has convinced the minorities that he stands between them and destruction. Khatib’s sensible offer helped undermine the terrible fear of many that this struggle is existential and will continue until one side has eliminated the other. To many Syrians who feel that they are mere pawns caught between two clashing giants, Khatib’s offer provided some hope of a kinder and saner future for Syria.”