SYRIA is ready for talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
But Mr Moualem said at the same time that Syria would pursue its fight "against terrorism", alluding to the conflict with rebels in which the United Nations says about 70,000 people have been killed.
Mr Assad and his foes are locked in a bloody stalemate after nearly two years of combat, destruction and civilian suffering.
"We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it. Even with those who have weapons in their hands. Because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue," Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted Mr Moualem as saying. He was speaking in Moscow at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia is a staunch ally of Mr Assad.
Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said in Cairo that he had not had any approaches about talks with Damascus, but had postponed trips to Russia and the US "until we see how things develop".
Syria’s government and the political opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts — softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict that has driven nearly 1-million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.
But the opposition has said any political solution must be based on the removal of Mr Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970.
Rebel fighters who do not answer to Mr al-Khatib are even more insistent that Mr Assad must go before any talks start.
Brig Selim Idris, head of a rebel military command, demanded a complete ceasefire, the president’s departure and the trial of his security and military chiefs as preconditions for negotiations. "We will not go (into talks) unless these demands are realised," he told Al Arabiya Television.
Damascus has rejected any preconditions for talks on ending the violence, which started as a peaceful prodemocracy uprising in March 2011, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
The two sides also differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in rebel-held parts of Syria. Mr Assad’s government says any serious dialogue must be held on Syrian territory under its control.
Adding to the difficulty of any negotiated settlement is the lack of influence that Syria’s political opposition — mostly operating outside the country — has over rebels inside.
"We are following the development of events ... with alarm," Mr Lavrov said. "In our evaluation the situation is at a kind of crossroads. There are those who have set a course for further bloodshed and an escalation of conflict. This is fraught with the risk of the collapse of the Syrian state and society. But there are also reasonable forces that increasingly acutely understand the need for the swiftest possible start of talks.
"In these conditions the need for the Syrian leadership to continue to consistently advocate the start of dialogue, and not allow provocations to prevail, is strongly increasing."
Mr Lavrov’s warning that the Syrian state could founder appeared aimed at showing that Russia is pressing Mr Assad’s government to seek a negotiated solution while continuing to lay much of the blame for the persistent violence in the country on his opponents.