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Syria: Behind Al-Khatib’s offer

TWO important developments took place last week that could have a dramatic effect on the two-year Syrian crisis. The first was the declaration by the head of the National Syrian Coalition (NSC) Moaz Al-Khatib that he was ready to engage in preliminary talks with representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime, conditional upon the release of political prisoners in Syria. The announcement was tantamount to a political bombshell. It was the first time that a top leader of Syria’s opposition in exile had made such an offer. Until last week the opposition had insisted on the removal of President Assad from power as a precondition to a political settlement.
Al-Khatib, a moderate Sunni figure, was elected to head the NSC few months ago. The newly formed body is a political umbrella for Syrian opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council (SNC). Western nations, led by the United States, had called for the formation of such a body to present a united front against Assad and to prepare the ground for a transitional government to take over once the regime was toppled. France recognized the NSC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And recently there was talk in Washington of plans to form a government by the NSC in liberated areas in northern Syria.
Al-Khatib’s offer, which he later toned down, has shocked colleagues in the NSC and raised eyebrows in capitals backing the Syrian uprising. It was not known if the former preacher had made the suggestion at a security conference in Munich as a personal initiative or after consultations with close allies. In both cases he had focused attention on the possibility of a breakthrough in the explosive crisis.
Al-Khatib’s initiative was followed by meetings with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. Both had welcomed Al-Khatib’s statements and Lavrov invited Al-Khatib to visit Moscow. Considering that both Russia and Iran are Assad’s closest allies, the meetings raised hopes that a political way out of the deadlock was still possible.
But a second development last week heightened tensions and brought in a new factor to the Syrian crisis. At the same Munich conference Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted that his country was responsible for an airstrike in Syria last week. Participating in a panel discussion on Sunday, Barak said, “That’s proof when we said something we mean it. We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.”
Israeli and Western media said the target of the Israeli strike was a convoy allegedly carrying anti-aircraft batteries destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Damascus said the target was a research center not far from the capital. Israel and the United States have expressed concern over the fate of chemical weapons believed to be under Assad’s control. The Israelis are worried that those weapons could fall in rebel hands or that the regime may decide to hand them over to Hezbollah.
So far there was no retaliation to the Israeli strike. President Assad told a visiting Iranian official that the “Israeli aggression exposes the role that Israel, in cooperation with hostile countries and their tools inside Syria, is doing to destabilize and weaken Syria.” On his part the Iranian official, Saeed Jalili, told a news conference in Damascus that Israel will regret its recent aggression. The attack was also condemned by Hezbollah.
But it is difficult to assess the Syrian reaction in the wake of the Israeli attack.
Meanwhile, battles continue to rage across Syria between the regular army and rebels with no clear military outcome. According to reports more than 5000 people were killed in Syria in January. Also Jordan noted a sudden increase in the flow of refugees from Syria and so did Lebanon. In the absence of a political deal the death toll as well the number of refugees will rise.
So far Syrian officials have not commented on Al-Khatib’s offer. The only reaction came from Jalili who said any talks must be held in Damascus, a condition that the opposition rejects.
With a new secretary of state taking over in Washington there could be a fresh attempt led by John Kerry to hammer together a political formula to end the Syrian crisis. Al-Khatib’s initiative could become the basis for such formula. The head of the NSC may have sensed that western support is waning and that a new thinking in Washington is now leaning toward keeping the regime intact but getting rid of Assad. Last week Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told CNN in Davos that Assad’s chances of staying in power are “slipping away” and that his refusal to have serious talks with part of the moderate opposition was an “important, if not fatal” mistake.
Al-Khatib’s offer may have been based on such statements. A close aide said that he wanted to embarrass the Syrian regime. Damascus has not responded so far, but it must do so if the Russian mood is really changing.

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