BEIRUT (AP) — 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 onto 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. ... We'll find a way to say 'goodbye' since it's an issue where there can be no bargaining," he told The Associated Press in Istanbul.
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.
"As a result of our confidence in the Russian position and its role in stopping the Syrian bloodshed, today I submitted to Minister Lavrov a plan for security arrangements that have to do with the city of Aleppo," Syria's top diplomat said. "I asked him to make necessary arrangements to guarantee its implementation and specify the zero hour for military operations to cease."
If Lavrov's efforts were successful, al-Moallem said, the Aleppo cease-fire plan could be used as a model for other parts of the country, where the conflict between Assad's forces and the opposition has claimed more than 130,000 lives since March 2011.
Al-Moallem also said his government has agreed "in principle" to release prisoners from jails in exchange for people kidnapped by armed groups, but he said there needs to be an exchange of lists and a mechanism for implementation.
The opposition has accused the government of reneging on promises before and declaring cease-fires in order to buy time. There are also questions as to whether such a truce is even remotely possible in a city where an array of armed rebel groups with no unified command is locked in a bloody stalemate with government troops.
The commander of one moderate rebel brigade in the city who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Thabet dismissed the government proposal.
"We have gotten used to these games by the regime and nobody takes it seriously," he said. He added that there were so many players in Aleppo, especially as rebels are bogged down in a fight against an al-Qaida-linked faction in the city and across the opposition-held north, that it would be nearly impossible to have anything like a truce.