Syrian minister willing to meet opposition chief abroad

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A Syrian minister said on Monday that he was ready to meet with National Coalition leader Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib who in late January said he is prepared to hold direct talks with regime representatives without “blood on their hands,” on condition the talks focus on replacing Assad.

“I am willing to meet Mr. Khatib in any foreign city where I can go in order to discuss preparations for a national dialogue,” Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar told The Guardian.

Haidar is a leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and has been a minister since 2011. He is one of two opposition candidates granted a ministerial post.

Asked what the aim of national dialogue is, Haidar said he wished for authentic competition in Syrian politics. The end result of healthy competition is to establish a multiparty parliament as well as secure a new president when Assad’s term ends in 2014.

“The dialogue is a means to provide a mechanism for reaching free parliamentary and presidential elections. This is one of the subjects which will be discussed at the table. Such a thing could be the result of negotiations, but not a precondition,” he said. “We reject a dialogue that is just to hand power from one side to another.”

Last month, Syrian President Bashar al Assad announced he was ready for talks with the opposition but ruled out meeting groups such as Khatib’s National Coalition, which backs armed rebels seeking to overthrow his regime.

Khatib’s initiative came three weeks after Assad’s announcement. It sparked a controversy amid opposition circles who some described as traitorous.

Haidar also noted that due to sanctions, he, like other Syrian ministers, is banned from the EU. He added however that Geneva is a possible location for holding the first round of talks.

“But we insist that the actual national dialogue take place on Syrian soil because it is a matter of Syrian dignity,” he stated.

Commenting on some exiled politician’s concerns of being arrested if they go to Syria, Haidar said: “The ministry of the interior has agreed to relax its policies and give them all the necessary documents to return and let them in even if they don’t have any. I don’t want to close the door to any opposition people who have concerns. I personally invite anyone to return and guarantee their safe entry and departure, if that’s what they want.”

He added that Khatib’s altered policy, the military deadlock and the change in the regional and international climate are what gave momentum to the possiblilty of negotiations.

“There are hardliners on both sides but 80% on each side now realize that no military victory is possible. I'm in contact by phone with some leaders of the Free Syrian Army and they used to say, “we’ll be in Damascus in a few days’ time, but today they say, we’ve found out that the international community is playing games with us and working for their own interests only so we realize we can’t defeat the Syrian army,” he said.

On whether U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission has ended, Haidar said it has not, adding, however, that the envoy has not been frank.

“In his discussions here it was Brahimi who said it was a bit early to form a government. His point was that it’s not possible because there are so many opposition factions in exile who are not yet ready to participate. Unfortunately, when he left Syria we heard something else from him,” Haidar said.

“There were contradictions in his statements which weakened his position of being equidistant from all Syrians. We wouldn’t say his mission has completely failed but he has to regain his previous position of equidistance.”