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Russia offers to broker Syria talks

Missiles shot from Syrian jets caused damage and injuries in Aleppo on Wednesday.Hamid Khatib/Reuters

DAMASCUS, Syria — Russia and the Arab League proposed Wednesday to broker talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar Assad’s regime to try to resolve the country’s civil war, while a government airstrike on a rebellious Damascus suburb killed at least 20 people.

The 23-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 Syrians and laid waste to the country’s cities, has repeatedly defied international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Wednesday’s offer from Moscow, one of Assad’s closest allies, suggested the regime could be warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost.


Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia said the Kremlin and the Arab League are attempting to establish direct contact between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Sitting at the negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparably damaging Syria, he said.

“Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it’s a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people,” Lavrov said in Moscow, where he hosted league officials and several Arab foreign ministers.

Both Lavrov and General Secretary Nabil Elaraby of the Arab League said their main priority was to create a transitional government to navigate a way out of the conflict.

No conditions for negotiations have been set. Lavrov said both sides’ readiness to talk is “the most important thing.”

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem of Syria will lead a delegation to Moscow on Monday, and Russia is expecting a visit in March from the opposition Syrian National Coalition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib.

Khatib has said he is open to talks with the regime that could pave the way for Assad’s departure, but that the Syrian leader must first release tens of thousands of detainees. The government has refused.


Russia’s proposal Wednesday got a cool reception from the opposition.

“We cannot agree to that,” said Abdelbaset Sieda, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition. “Assad and his group must go first. After that we can discuss with others in the regime who didn’t share in the killing of our people.”

Still, Wednesday’s proposal was notable because it emanated from Russia — Assad’s chief international advocate. It is unlikely that Moscow would publicly propose to host talks without having first secured Damascus’ word that it would indeed sit down with the opposition.

The timing might mean the regime is willing to negotiate.

Syria’s rebels have notched a series of tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation’s largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking airbases in the northeast. They cut off a key highway in Damascus and are making forays to within a mile of the heart of the heavily guarded capital.

The air raid Wednesday hit the Damascus suburb of Hamouriyeh, killing at least 20 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More were believed to be under the debris.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll higher, saying up to 35 were killed and dozens more were wounded.

Amateur videos posted online showed several vehicles on fire as thick black smoke billowed from a street. The videos show the bodies of two people, who were burned, in a pickup truck and the charred corpse of another person on the ground.


The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting on the events.

Earlier Wednesday, two mortars crashed into a sports complex in a normally calm neighborhood central Damascus, killing one soccer player and wounding three.

The mortar attack was the second in as many days in ­Damascus. On Tuesday, two mortars exploded near one of ­Assad’s palaces, but no one was hurt.

The state news agency said the mortars that hit a complex housing Tishrin Stadium and a hotel killed Youssef Suleiman from al-Wathbah club based in Homs. He was wounded inside the hotel as players were getting ready for practice and died at a hospital.

Suleiman, a striker, had played internationally on a national youth team. His teammates said he was the father of a 6-month-old baby.

State TV broadcast video of what it said was the hotel. The explosion blew out the windows on the first floor and shattered glass covered three beds in one room.

‘‘We were collecting our things, about to head to the stadium, when we heard the first explosion and the windows were blown off,’’ said Ali Ghosn, a 20-year-old al-Wathbah ­player.

“Youssef was hit in the neck. We ran out to the corridor when the second explosion struck and I saw Youssef fall down bleeding from his neck,” he told the AP in Damascus as some of his colleagues wept.