Faced with the growing prospect of a military stalemate, Syria’s opposition coalition is calling for dialogue with the Assad regime — even floating the possibility that the brutal dictator might be allowed to leave the country if he steps down.
When the surprise offer for talks was made late last week by Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the opposition movement’s elected leader, most analysts expected the diverse rebel coalition — which runs the gamut from modern politicians to al-Qaida-linked extremists — to respond with outrage. And, initially, many members did just that. After all, the ongoing civil war has already claimed some 60,000 lives and recently reached new levels of fury in the wake of reports that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons in the city of Homs.
But in an apparent bid to present a unified front and counter perceptions that the opposition is fractured and indecisive, many rebel leaders have signed on to the latest effort to halt the bloodshed and bring the two-year conflict to a close. This speaks, in part, to resignation that the international community is unlikely to provide the advanced weaponry and robust military aid necessary to topple Assad’s stronghold in Damascus. Recently-departed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and disgraced General David Petraeus sought President Obama’s backing for a scheme to arm and train the rebels last summer, but their proposal was shot down by a White House concerned about weapons falling into the wrong hands, not to mention the domestic political implications for a president engaged in a tough re-election battle. Their effort might have been renewed after Obama’s decisive win in November, but by then Petraeus had been embroiled in a sex scandal involving his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and Clinton was preparing to give way to John Kerry, her recently-installed successor at State.
The Assad regime, too weakened now to respond aggressively to last week’s Israeli airstrike on a shipment of weapons believed to be bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, has expressed a vague openness to dialogue with the rebels. But Assad is hedging when it comes to the release of 160,000 political prisoners and the renewal of expired passports held by Syrians abroad, which Sheik Khatib insists is a precondition to discussions. The opposition leader’s new diplomatic push comes after he burnished his foreign policy credentials over the weekend by meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Russian and Iranian diplomats at a security conference in Munich. Iran continues to voice support for Assad, and is believed to be supplying economic — and perhaps even surreptitious military — aid.
Assad seems to be intent on finishing out his current presidential term, which expires in mid-2014. Whether al-Khatib can bring his fractious movement along for the diplomatic ride (and credibly guarantee the president a ticket out of the country) will color any attempts at finding peace in the meantime.