January 18, 2014 in Nation/World

Syria proposes Aleppo cease-fire, prisoner exchange

Ryan Lucas Associated Press

The Syrian opposition has long demanded a cease-fire and prisoner exchanges as preconditions to negotiations with the government.

BEIRUT – Syria’s government Friday proposed a cease-fire in the embattled city of Aleppo and a prisoner exchange with the opposition, a move that appeared aimed at presenting President Bashar Assad as a responsible partner less than a week before an international peace conference.

Assad’s opponents were skeptical about the offer, which was floated by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow. A member of the main Western-backed opposition dismissed the government overture as “last-minute maneuvering” to please Damascus’ Russian allies, while a rebel commander in Aleppo described such a truce in the civil war as nearly impossible.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition has yet to decide whether it will attend the peace talks scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. Members of the coalition gathered Friday in Istanbul to vote on the group’s participation, but the start of the meeting was delayed for at least 10 hours after dozens of representatives refused to show up.

The coalition is under immense pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to go to Geneva. Many members, however, are hesitant to sign on to a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with rebels on the ground, who reject the talks.

Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the coalition, said it was inclined to vote in favor of participating in the talks but that the Assad regime “has to leave.”

“We are not obliged to stay there forever. If we find any deviation in the negotiations, we’ll withdraw,” he said. “We’ll find a way to say ‘goodbye’ since it’s an issue where there can be no bargaining.”

The meeting in Moscow between al-Moallem and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was part of a final diplomatic push before the peace conference that has been dubbed Geneva 2. Al-Moallem did not divulge details of the cease-fire proposal, which would contain “measures to enforce security” in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

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