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Syria indicates it is willing to negotiate with rebels

Proposal unlikely to lead to talks; blasts rock capital

A huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts were reported in Damascus Monday. Above, damage was evident from previous strikes in the Harasta area.

Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters

A huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts were reported in Damascus Monday. Above, damage was evident from previous strikes in the Harasta area.

BEIRUT — Syria said Monday it is prepared to hold talks with the armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects to hold on to power as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.

The offer, by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, came hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire.

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State-run news agency SANA said there were multiple casualties from the explosion, which it said was a suicide car bombing. Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosions targeted a checkpoint, adding there were initial reports of at least five regime forces killed and several wounded.

The proposal marked the first time that a high-ranking regime official has stated publicly that Damascus would be willing to meet with the armed opposition. But Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to lay down their weapons before negotiations could begin, a crucial sticking point in the past.

The regime’s proposal is unlikely to lead to talks. The rebels battling the Syrian military have vowed to stop at nothing less than Assad’s downfall and probably will not agree to meet with a leader they accuse of mass atrocities.

But the timing of the proposal suggests the regime is warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost to the rebels in the nearly 2-year-old conflict.

In a sign of a shift among world governments to more active efforts to break the stalemate, Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry arms from Croatia and sent them to antigovernment fighters in Syria, The New York Times reported in Monday’s editions, citing officials familiar with the deal.

Opposition fighters 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.

While the momentum appears to be shifting in the rebels’ direction, the regime’s grip on Damascus remains firm, and Assad’s fall is far from imminent.

Still, Monday’s offer to negotiate with the armed opposition reflects the regime’s realization that in the long run, its chances of keeping its grip on power are slim.

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