DAMASCUS, Syria – The Syrian government wants more details before deciding whether to take part in a proposed U.S.-Russian initiative to negotiate a peaceful end to Syria's crisis, the country's information minister said, staking out a similar position to the main opposition group.
Washington and Moscow called last week for an international conference to bring representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition to the negotiating table with the aim of setting up a transitional government and cease-fire. The U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in Syria's civil war, and the diplomatic push marks the countries' first serious joint attempt to resolve the crisis in a year.
Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an interview late Monday with Lebanon's Al-Manar TV, excerpts of which were published Tuesday by the Syrian state news agency, the government's participation in the proposed talks "depends on knowing the details and developments."
But he stressed that Damascus will not take part in any political dialogue that infringes on the country's sovereignty, and stressed that the president, constitution and the form of political system are among the sovereign matters and will be only decided by the "Syrian people and ballot boxes."
"Syria's political decision is clear, which is to go toward a political solution and support positive international efforts while fighting terrorism at the same time," he said.
One of the key sticking points in even bringing the sides to the table for talks has been the role of President Bashar Assad in any negotiated transition.
Syrian officials have said that Assad will stay in his post until his term ends in mid-2014 and then he will be able to run again. The Syrian opposition says any political solution for Syria should begin with the departure of Assad and top officials in his regime.
The main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, said Monday it wants to consult its allies before deciding whether to attend the conference.
The time, venue and agenda of the conference have not been set, reflecting disagreements between the two warring sides in Syria that scuttled previous initiatives.
While the two sides decide whether to attend, work on sorting out the logistics for the conference has already begun.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said over the weekend that Syria has given its list of attendees to its ally Russia.
Elaraby said the international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is working on the setting up the conference, but no date has been set. Initially, the U.S. and Russia said it should be held by the end of the month.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that he has every expectation that both sides in the conflict will participate in the conference.
Speaking in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, Kerry also warned the Assad regime that new help will be given to the rebels should the government decide to back out of the negotiations.
The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests before descending into a brutal civil war. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions displaced.
There have been several past diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed, all of which eventually collapsed. The violence on the ground, meanwhile, has only escalated.
On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes and shelling around the country, including the military airbases of Nairab, Kweiras and Mannagh in the northern province of Aleppo. The three airports have been under attack for weeks.
Amateur videos showed rebels firing rockets at the Mannagh air base as smoke billowed from the area. Syrian warplanes were conducting air raids as well.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
The Observatory also reported fighting around the besieged rebel-held central town of Qusair t close to the Lebanon border. Rebels seized Qusair early in the uprising, but government troops backed by gunmen linked to the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group have captured several surrounding villages in recent weeks and are now laying siege to Qusair itself.
The Syrian National Coalition warned in a statement that the Syrian government has sent reinforcements to Qusair, including 30 tanks and a large numbers of soldiers.
The Observatory reported clashes between several hardline rebel groups with the extremist Ghurabaa al-Sham in Aleppo province. It said the clashes began after several groups tried to open a major road leading to northern parts of Aleppo after it was closed by Ghurabaa al-Sham.
Rival factions among rebels have fought in the past.
In his interview, Al-Zoubi, the information minister, called on all Syrians carrying arms against the government to drop their weapons and take part in the political process. He added that foreigners fighting in Syria should leave "immediately the way they came in, carrying their weapons and ammunition, because they will be killed at the hands of our armed forces."