DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government wants more details before deciding whether to take part in a proposed U.S.-Russian initiative to negotiate a peaceful end to Syria’s crisis, the country’s information minister said, staking out a similar position to the main opposition group.
Washington and Moscow called last week for an international conference to bring representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition to the negotiating table with the aim of setting up a transitional government and an open-ended cease-fire. The U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, and the push for talks marks the countries’ first serious joint attempt at Syria diplomacy in a year.
The time, venue and agenda of the conference have not been set, reflecting disagreements between the two warring sides in Syria that scuttled previous initiatives.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an interview late Monday with Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV, excerpts of which were published Tuesday by the Syrian state news agency, that Damascus will not take part in any political dialogue that infringes on the country’s sovereignty.
He said Syria’s participation in the proposed conference “depends on knowing the details and developments.”
He added that the president, constitution and form of political system are among the sovereign matters and will be only decided by the “Syrian people and ballot boxes.”
“Syria’s political decision is clear, which is to go toward a political solution and support positive international efforts while fighting terrorism at the same time,” he said.
One of the key sticking points in even bringing the sides to the table for talks has been the role of President Bashar Assad in any negotiated transition.
Syrian officials have said in that Assad will stay in his post until his term ends in mid-2014 and then he will be able to run again, while the Syrian opposition says any political solution for Syria should begin with the departure of Assad and top officials in his regime.
The main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, said Monday it wants to consult its allies before deciding whether to attend the conference.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the U.S.-Russian initiative without saying whether it would attend.
While the two sides decide whether to attend, work on sorting out the logistics for the conference already has begun.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said over the weekend that Syria has given its list of attendees to its ally Russia.
Elaraby said the international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is working on the setting up the conference, but no date has been set. Initially, the U.S. and Russia said it should be held by the end of the month.
The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests before descending into a brutal civil war. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions displaced.
There have been several past diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed, all of which eventually collapsed. In the meantime, the violence raging on the ground has only escalated.
On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes and shelling around the country, including the military airbases of Nairab, Kweiras and Mannagh in the northern province of Aleppo. The three airports have been under attack for weeks.
The Observatory also reported fighting around the besieged rebel-held central town of Qusair that is close to the Lebanon border. Rebels seized Qusair early in the uprising, but government troops backed by gunmen linked to the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group have captured several surrounding villages in recent weeks and are now laying siege to Qusair itself.
The Syrian National Coalition warned in a statement that the Syrian government has sent reinforcements to Qusair, including 30 tanks and a large numbers of soldiers.
The Observatory reported clashes between several hardline rebel groups with the extremist Ghurabaa al-Sham in Aleppo province. It said the clashes began after several groups tried to open a major road leading to northern parts of Aleppo after it was closed by Ghurabaa al-Sham.
Rival factions among rebels have fought in the past.