Khatib: It is up to Damascus to take next step towards dialogue
DAMASCUS - Syria's opposition chief extended a hand on Monday to President Bashar al-Assad's regime but said it was now up to Damascus to take the next step towards dialogue between the country's warring parties.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib's comments to pan-Arab channel Al-Jazeera came as Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that Tehran would continue talks with the Syrian opposition following a preliminary meeting at the weekend.
"The ball is now in the regime's court. They will either say yes or no," Khatib said on Monday, following up on his surprise announcement last week that he was ready to meet regime officials provided the authorities release "160,000 detainees" and renew passports for Syrians stranded outside the country.
"I say to Bashar al-Assad: look into the eyes of your children and try to find a solution ... We can help each other in the interest" of the people, the head of the National Coalition opposition grouping said.
"The regime needs to take a clear position. We will extend our hands for the sake of the people, and in order to help the regime leave in peace," he said.
Khatib's statement last week on negotiations with conditions attached was backed by the Coalition, a grouping of externally-based opposition groups, but only if they led to the fall of the regime.
While some opposition figures immediately denounced Khatib's proposal as traitorous, he said on Monday he "rejected" the label.
"Our people are dying, and we will not allow that," Khatib said.
Khatib had on Sunday held talks with Salehi at a security conference in the southern German city of Munich, which the Iranian foreign minister on Monday said were to be continued.
"We had 45 (minutes) to an hour discussion which was very fruitful... and we committed ourselves to continue this discussion," Salehi told a foreign-policy think-tank in Berlin.
Khatib also held a meeting in Munich on Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who while expressing an interest in "maintaining regular contact" with the opposition, also said the dissidents' insistence on Assad going was "the main reason for the continuation of the Syrian tragedy."
Adding to the latest flurry of diplomatic activity, another Iranian official, Saeed Jalili, the head of his country's Supreme National Security Council, was Monday in Damascus where he renewed Tehran's support for Assad.
Jalili also issued a warning to Israel after the Jewish state confirmed an air strike near Damascus, saying it will regret its latest "aggression against Syria".
"Just as it has regretted all its wars... the Zionist entity will regret its aggression against Syria," Jalili said.
In Munich on Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak implicitly confirmed that the Jewish state had staged an air strike on Syria, following reports of an air raid which Damascus said targeted a military complex near the capital.
Last Wednesday's air strike targeted surface-to-air missiles and an adjacent military complex believed to house chemical agents, according to a US official.
"Syria is at the forefront of the Muslim world's confrontation with the Zionist entity," Jalili said, referring to Israel.
Tehran has provided Assad's regime with unequivocal support throughout the country's 22-month conflict, which the UN says has left more than 60,000 people dead.
"Since the beginning (of the conflict) we have asked everyone to sit at one table and talk.... We support everyone's participation in this dialogue," said Jalili.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities announced the release of two Russians and an Italian citizen kidnapped by Syrian "extremists" last year in Syria. They were "released in exchange for militants," Russia's foreign ministry said.
On the ground in Syria, fierce battles raged in flashpoints across the country, including Aleppo and Raqa in the north, as well as in Damascus province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The watchdog added that at least 178 people were killed across the country on Sunday, including 63 civilians.