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Syrian regime ‘ready’ for unconditional dialogue with opposition

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government said it was ready for talks with opposition leaders provided there were no preconditions, an indication there may still be a slight chance for a political solution to the conflict.

“The door is open, the negotiating table is there, welcome to any Syrian who wants to have dialogue with us,” Information Minister Omrane al-Zohbi said on state television.

“When you speak of dialogue, it means dialogue without conditions, which excludes no one. But if someone comes to me and says ‘I want to talk about this issue or I’ll kill you’, that’s not a dialogue,” he said.

“There must be no preconditions.”

The opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Feb.1, the day after an offer of dialogue by its leader Moaz al-Khatib, that any talks on the country’s political future must be about the departure of the Assad regime.

Khatib had also called for the release of 160,000 detainees. He said he wanted dialogue with members of the regime who did not have “blood on their hands,” suggesting that he was ready to meet Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa.

In the same vain, the United Nations on Friday said it sees a glimmer of hope for Syria in Khatib’s offer to meet government representatives to discuss a political transition.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said last week’s offer by khatib was “the most promising thing we’ve heard on Syria recently.”

“Perhaps there is now a slight opening, perhaps that locked door to negotiations is starting to be unlocked,” he said. “Moaz Alkhatib does represent a significant and important part of the opposition ... This is an opportunity worth pursuing.”

According to the United Nations, more than 60,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad’s regime began in March 2011.

The uprising began as a series of peaceful demonstrations inspired by the so-called Arab Spring, but grew increasingly militarized after government forces opened fire on demonstrators and soon escalated into a civil war.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked since 2011 over Russia and China’s refusal to consider sanctions against Assad’s government. They have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad’s attempts to crush the revolt.

U.S. weighs next step

The United States said Friday it is weighing its next steps to try to end the conflict in Syria.

“There’s too much killing and there’s too much violence and we obviously want to try to find a way forward,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in his first press conference since taking over as the top U.S. diplomat.

“It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation.”

“We are evaluating now, we are taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation.”

But he stopped short of saying whether the administration would review its long-held position of not providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

Kerry’s comments came as the White House was forced to defend its decision to reject a plan to arm the Syrian opposition put forward last year by top members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a congressional hearing on Thursday he had backed plans to arm and train vetted rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces -- as had former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and ex-CIA chief David Petraeus.

Panetta’s admission angered some lawmakers keen to provide more U.S. support to Syrian rebels, including Republican hawk Senator John McCain. It also sparked speculation of a split in Obama’s cabinet.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday the U.S. priority was to ensure that weapons provided by Americans did not end up in the wrong hands and create more danger for “the U.S., the Syrian people or for Israel.”

So far the Obama administration has provided only humanitarian and non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment.