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Security Conference Yields No Big Steps Forward In Syria Conflict


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There's been a lot of talk this weekend at a security conference in Germany about how to resolve the crisis in Syria. And for the first time, a leader of Syria's opposition sat down with officials from Russia and Iran, both countries are key allies of the Syrian regime.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Up until now the main Syrian opposition groups have refused to meet and talk with the Syrian regime, or to hold official talks with the regime's key backers. They contended the regime simply has too much blood on its hands; that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down before any talks can start.

But that changed this past week, as the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, announced he was willing to talk with the regime if the regime agrees to release what's believed to be hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. That offer seemed to open the door for conversations with Syria's allies, Russia and Iran.

Khatib immediately faced criticism from his own.

HAYTHAM AL-MALEH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh told the Arabiya TV news channel there should be no negotiating with mafias or gangs, as he said it.

MOAZ AL-KHATIB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Khatib later defended the move to Arabiya as a way to resolve the crisis with the least amount of bloodshed. He said his office has received an unofficial response from regime supporters welcoming the idea. Some Syrians in the country also have welcomed the initiative, saying they're tired of fighting and it's time for dialogue. Others say it's unthinkable to negotiate with a regime responsible for killing tens of thousands of people.

Khatib's own organization, the Coalition, held a long late-night meeting over the weekend, urging him not to accept any proposals without consulting them first. In Germany, Khatib met separately with the Russian foreign minister, the Iranian foreign minister and American Vice President Joe Biden.

The U.S. and Russia remain divided on how to resolve the Syria crisis. The U.S. says Syrian President Assad must go, Biden told the security conference.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: President Obama and I, and nearly all of our partners and allies, are convinced that President Assad - a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power - is no longer fit to lead the Syrian people and he must go.

MCEVERS: But Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that insistence is counterproductive.

SERGEY LAVROV: And persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of President Assad, I think it's the single biggest reason for the continued tragedy in Syria.

MCEVERS: And it's not just the West versus Russia. Britain and France are pushing for the EU to lift an arms embargo, so those countries can arm the Syrian opposition. But the U.S. is pushing for only nonlethal aid to the opposition.

In Germany, Khatib urged officials to take out the Syrian regime's air assets. That's something Lavrov said Russia would not sanction.

LAVROV: Any use of force, any threat of the use of force, will be unacceptable. The situation on the ground requires not more military assets but immediate cease fire and immediate end of violence.

MCEVERS: The Syrian opposition says the best way to end the violence is stop the regime from killing its own people. Witnesses say a horrific attack at Aleppo University last month that killed more than 80 people, was an airstrike by government warplanes. And dozens of bodies recently found in a river in Aleppo were said to be those of people who'd gone missing while they were in government-controlled areas.

Up till now the West has ruled out military intervention in Syria. But this past week, Israel reportedly launched an airstrike in Syria. Syria claims the target was a research center. American officials told The New York Times it was a convoy of weapons. Analysts in Israel said the U.S. was informed of the strike before it was launched.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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