Syria's opposition leader has rejected an invitation from
Russia for peace talks, dealing another blow to international
hopes that diplomacy can be resurrected to end a 21-month
Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's main international
protector, said on Friday it had sent an invitation for a
visit to Moaz Alkhatib, whose six-week-old National Coalition
opposition group has been recognised by most Western and Arab
states as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people.
But in an interview on Al Jazeera television, Alkhatib said
he had already ruled out such a trip and wanted an apology
from Moscow for its support for Assad.
"We have clearly said we will not go to Moscow. We could meet
in an Arab country if there was a clear agenda," he said.
"Now we also want an apology from (Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei) Lavrov because all this time he said that the people
will decide their destiny, without foreign intervention.
Russia is intervening and meanwhile all these massacres of
the Syrian people have happened, treated as if they were a
"If we don't represent the Syrian people, why do they invite
us?" Alkhatib said. "And if we do represent the Syrian people
why doesn't Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of
the barbarity of the regime and make a clear call for Assad
to step down? This is the basic condition for any
With the rebels advancing steadily over the second half of
2012, diplomats have been searching for months for signs that
Moscow's willingness to protect Assad is faltering.
So far Russia has stuck to its position that rebels must
negotiate with Assad's government, which has ruled since his
father seized power in a coup 42 years ago.
"I think a realistic and detailed assessment of the situation
inside Syria will prompt reasonable opposition members to
seek ways to start a political dialogue," Lavrov said on
That was immediately dismissed by the opposition: "The
coalition is ready for political talks with anyone ... but it
will not negotiate with the Assad regime," spokesman Walid
al-Bunni told Reuters. "Everything can happen after the Assad
regime and all its foundations have gone. After that we can
sit down with all Syrians to set out the future."
BRAHIMI TO MOSCOW
Russia says it is behind the efforts of U.N. mediator Lakhdar
Brahimi, fresh from a five-day trip to Damascus where he met
Assad. Brahimi, due in Moscow for talks on Saturday, is
touting a months-old peace plan for a transitional
That U.N. plan was long seen as a dead letter, foundering
from the outset over the question of whether the transitional
body would include Assad or his allies. Brahimi's
predecessor, Kofi Annan, quit in frustration shortly after
But with rebels having seized control of large sections of
the country in recent months, Russia and the United States
have been working with Brahimi to resurrect the plan as the
only internationally recognised diplomatic negotiating track.
Russia's Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail
Bogdanov, who announced the invitation to Alkhatib, said
Russian officials were ready to meet him in another country.
He said further talks were scheduled between the "three Bs" -
himself, Brahimi and U.S. Undersecretary of State William
Speaking in Damascus on Thursday, Brahimi called for a
transitional government with "all the powers of the state", a
phrase interpreted by the opposition as potentially
signalling tolerance of Assad remaining in some ceremonial
The United Nations press office in New York said Brahimi had
not specifically said Assad should remain in office until the
end of his presidential term in 2014.
Brahimi had said the transition "should start as soon as
possible, that a government should be established as soon as
possible, and that he hopes that the crisis can be solved in
2013 because it cannot wait until 2014", it said in a
But such a plan is anathema to the surging rebels, who now
believe they can drive Assad out with a military victory,
despite long being outgunned by his forces.
"We do not agree at all with Brahimi's initiative. We do not
agree with anything Brahimi says," Colonel Abdel-Jabbar
Oqaidi, who heads the rebels' military council in Aleppo
province, told reporters at his headquarters there.
Oqaidi said the rebels want Assad and his allies tried in
Syria for crimes. Assad says he will stay on and fight to the
death if necessary.
In the rebel-held town of Kafranbel, demonstrators held up
cartoons showing Brahimi speaking to a news conference with
toilet bowls in front of him, in place of microphones.
Banners denounced the U.N. envoy with obscenities in English.
Diplomacy has largely been irrelevant to the conflict so far,
with Western states ruling out military intervention like the
NATO bombing that helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last
year, and Russia and China blocking U.N. action against
Meanwhile, the fighting has grown fiercer and more sectarian,
with rebels mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority battling
Assad's government and allied militia dominated by his
Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Still, Western diplomats repeatedly have touted signs of a
change in policy from Russia, which they hope could prove
decisive, much as Moscow's withdrawal of support for Serbian
leader Slobodan Milosevic heralded his downfall a decade ago.
Bogdanov said earlier this month that Assad's forces were
losing ground and rebels might win the war, but Russia has
since rowed back, with Lavrov last week reiterating Moscow's
position that neither side could win through force.
Still, some Moscow-based analysts see the Kremlin coming to
accept it must adapt to the possibility of rebel victory.
"As the situation changes on the battlefield, more incentives
emerge for seeking a way to stop the military action and move
to a phase of political regulation," said Dmitry Trenin,
director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Meanwhile, on the ground the bloodshed that has killed some
44,000 people continues unabated. According to the
pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a
monitoring group based in Britain, at least 120 people were
killed on Friday, a typical toll as fighting has escalated in
Activists said at least 13 people, including seven children
aged five under, were killed in an air strike on the town of
Safira southeast of Aleppo city. Video footage released by
the activists showed several collapsed concrete buildings and
at least 20 people searching through the rubble for
Government war planes bombarded the town of Assal al-Ward in
the Qalamoun district of Damascus province for the first
time, killing one person and wounding dozens, the observatory
In Aleppo, Syria's northern commercial hub, clashes took
place between rebel fighters and army forces around an air
force intelligence building in the Zahra quarter, a
neighbourhood that has been surrounded by rebels for weeks.