The Syrian opposition has said it is ready for exploratory peace talks with the regime after gaining UN backing for its position that Bashar al-Assad himself “would have no role” in a transitional government.
The developments served to increase the isolation of Russia which remains a staunch backer of the regime in Damascus, and has insisted that Assad stay in place through any future transition to democracy. As senior officials arrived in Munich for a security conference this week, it was unclear on Friday night whether the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, would join the US vice-president, Joseph Biden, and the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, in meeting the opposition National Coalition leader, Moaz al-Khatib.
Despite Syrian opposition claims that Lavrov would take part in a four-way meeting, one of his deputies, Gennady Gatilov, said there were no plans for such a meeting.
Khatib arrived in Munich having survived a challenge to his leadership from Islamists inside the coalition, who objected to his offer, first made on his personal Facebook page, to talk to the regime while Assad remained in power. The objection had been that Assad had to leave office before talks could begin but Khatib defended himself against criticism at an emergency coalition meeting in Cairo on Thursday, saying that the talks would remain conditional on the release of thousands of political prisoners.
The Munich talks will take place as the conflict showed its potential for escalating into a regional conflagration. Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanon again on Friday, two days after air strikes inside Syrian territory, according to a UN official.
Khatib’s statement was welcomed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who called for “a credible process that would lead to a real change, a clear break from the past”. A UN source added that the opposition would now have to “walk the walk” in demonstrating its readiness to talk.
However, the opposition and its western supporters won a significant victory in their stand-off with Moscow when Brahimi backed their position that Assad could not participate in any transitional government that might result from peace talks. At a meeting in Geneva last year, western governments and Russia came to an agreement on transition that fudged that critical issue. It said a transitional government had to be chosen “by mutual consent”.
In a briefing to the security council, Brahimi said: “The Geneva communiqué was elegant and creative in that it did not speak of President Bashar Al-Assad and his role in the transition and beyond. I think, however, it is largely understood that ‘governing body with full executive powers’ clearly meant that the president would have no role in the transition.”
A transcript of the briefing was obtained by the UN Report website, and was confirmed as accurate by UN sources. Arguing that in Syria “things are bad and getting worse, the country is breaking up before everyone’s eyes”, Brahimi put forward a step-by-step peace plan, starting with talks “between a strong, fully representative team on behalf of the opposition and a strong civilian-military delegation representing the government”.
He added: “These negotiations should start outside of Syria and take place according to an agreed timetable to enable the process to move – as fast as possible – towards the democratic process which would include the election, constitutional reform and referendum.” He pointed out that it would not be hard to transform the current presidential system to a parliamentary system of government.
On Friday, western officials stuck to their analysis that the target of the Israeli air strikes was a convoy of trucks carrying anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian government described the target as a military research centre.
Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the UN forces in Lebanon, Unifil, confirmed that there had been continued violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli forces. “On Tuesday [ahead of the air strike] there were a high number of violations, but since then it has not been unusual,” he told the Guardian.
Under UN security council resolution 1701, passed after the 2006 Israel-Lebanese war, Israeli planes are forbidden from flying over Lebanon.