President Bashar al-Assad
The opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal under U.S. and Russian auspices to end the country's civil war but President Bashar al-Assad cannot be a party to any settlement, a communiqué drafted for an opposition meeting says.
The meeting of the 70-member Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition is taking place before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Assad's last foreign allies, and as U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi renews efforts for a deal, reports Reuters.
The opposition front convened in Cairo on a day when a car bomb jolted central Damascus, killing several people and incinerating cars on a busy highway close to the Russian Embassy and offices of the ruling Baath Party.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the blast killed at least 31 people in the capital, which has been relatively insulated from the nearly two-year conflict that has killed around 70,000 people.
The draft SNC communiqué, seen by Reuters, omitted a direct demand for Assad's removal, in a softening of tone from past positions that insisted the president must go before there could be any negotiations.
The document said Assad and his cohorts must be held accountable for bloodshed, and that any peace deal must be under the auspices of the United States and Russia.
"Bashar al-Assad and the military and security apparatus commands are responsible for the decisions that have led the country to what it is now, are outside the political process and are not part of any political solution in Syria," it said.
"They have to be held accountable for the crimes they have committed."
The initiative comes from coalition president Moaz Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who played a role in the peaceful protest movement against Assad at the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
Alkhatib's supporters say the initiative has popular support inside Syria from people who want to see a peaceful departure of Assad and a halt to the war that has increasingly pitted Assad's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
But rebel fighters on the ground, over whom Alkhatib has little control, are generally against the proposal.