MOSCOW - Syria is ready to hold talks with the armed opposition trying to topple President Bashar Assad, the country's foreign minister said Monday, in the government's most advanced offer yet to try to resolve the 2-year-old civil war through negotiations.
Walid al-Moallem did not say whether rebel fighters would first have to lay down their arms before negotiations could begin, a key sticking point in the past. Still, the proposal marked the first time that a high-ranking Syrian official has stated publicly that the government would meet with opposition fighters.
"We're ready for a dialogue with anyone who's willing for it," al-Moallem said in Moscow ahead of talks with his Russian counterpart, "even with those who carry arms. We are confident that reforms will come about not with the help of bloodshed but through dialogue."
One rebel commander welcomed the idea of talks, but only on the condition that Assad and those who are responsible for the bloodshed are put on trial.
Syria's 23-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people and destroyed many of the country's cities, has repeatedly confounded international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Russia, a close ally of Assad and his regime's chief international advocate, offered last Wednesday, in concert with the Arab League, to broker talks between the rebels and the government.
The proposal - which the Kremlin would be unlikely to float publicly without first securing word from Damascus that it would indeed take part - suggested the regime could be warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and win back ground it has lost to the rebels.
Syria's rebels have scored several tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation's largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking airbases in the northeast. In Damascus, they have advanced from their strongholds in the suburbs into neighborhoods in the northeast and southern rim of the capital, while peppering the center of the city with mortar rounds for days.
On Thursday, a huge bomb blast near the ruling Baath party headquarters in Damascus killed at least 53 people, according to state media.
While the momentum may be subtly shifting in the rebels' direction, the regime's grip on Damascus remains firm, and Assad's fall is far from imminent - or certain.
Ahead of the meeting with al-Moallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his call for Syria to negotiate with the opposition, saying that "the situation in Syria is at a crossroads now." He also warned that further fighting could lead to "the breakup of the Syrian state."
Past government offers for talks with the opposition have included a host of conditions, such as demanding that the rebels first lay down their arms. Those proposals have been swiftly rejected by both activists outside the country and rebels on the ground.
The prospect of negotiating with the armed opposition is made all the more difficult by the fractured status of those fighting to topple the regime. There are dozens of armed brigades and groups across the country and no unified command.
The head of one group, Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss, said he is "ready to take part in dialogue within specific frameworks," but then rattled off conditions that the regime has rejected in the past.
"There needs to be a clear decision on the resignation of the head of the criminal gang, Bashar Assad, and for those who participated in the killing of the Syrian people to be put on trial," Idriss told pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV.
He said the government must agree to stop all kinds of violence and to hand over power, saying that "as rebels, this is our bottom line."
Both sides in the conflict in recent weeks have floated offers and counter-offers to hold talks to resolve the crisis.
In a speech in January, Assad offered to lead a national dialogue to end the bloodshed, but said he would not talk with the armed opposition and vowed to keep on fighting. The opposition rejected the proposal.
This month, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for opposition parties, said he would be open to discussions with the regime that could pave the way for Assad's departure, but that the government must first release tens of thousands of detainees. The government refused, and even members within the Coalition balked at the idea of talks.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Cairo, SNC chief Mouaz al-Khatib accused the regime of procrastinating and said it had derailed his dialogue offer by not responding to the Coalition's conditions.
"We are always open to initiatives that stop the killing and destruction but the regime rejected the simplest of humanitarian conditions. We have asked that the regime start by releasing women prisoners and there was no response," he said. "This regime must understand that the Syrian people do not want it anymore."
Countries in the region have watched the Syrian conflict with trepidation, fearful that the bloodshed could drag in neighboring states.
Turkey, which has taken in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and has exchanged fire across the border with government troops, is among those most concerned about the fallout.
Speaking to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Damascus of using "every instrument to turn the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people into a sectarian war which would engulf the entire region in flames."
"The longer this regime is allowed to wage its campaign of violence, the harder it will be to prevent such a dreadful eventuality," he added.
Meanwhile, the fighting inside Syria rages on.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported heavy clashes Monday outside a police academy in Khan al-Asal just outside Aleppo.
Rebels backed by captured tanks launched a fresh offensive on the facility on Sunday. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said at least 13 rebels and five regime troops were killed in the fighting.
In another part of Aleppo, rebels downed a military helicopter near the Mennegh airport, where there have been fierce clashes for months.
A video posted online by activists shows a missile being fired, a trail of white smoke and then the aircraft going up in flames. Voices in the background shout "God is great" as a man raises both hands in the air in celebration.
The video appeared to be authentic and corresponds to other AP reporting.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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