Syria says it's prepared to talk with armed rebels
It's also unclear who exactly the regime would sit across from at the negotiating table.
The dozens of armed groups across Syria fall under no unified command and do not answer to the Syrian National Council, which the West recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
At least one group offered a lukewarm response Monday to al-Moallem's proposal. Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss, said he is "ready to take part in dialogue within specific frameworks," but then rattled off conditions that the regime has rejected in the past.
"There needs to be a clear decision on the resignation of the head of the criminal gang, Bashar Assad, and for those who participated in the killing of the Syrian people to be put on trial," Idriss told Al-Arabiya TV.
He said the government must agree to stop all kinds of violence and to hand over power, stating that "as rebels, this is our bottom line."
Syria's 23-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people and destroyed many of the country's cities, has repeatedly confounded international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Russia, a close ally of Assad and his regime's chief international advocate, offered Feb. 20, in concert with the Arab League, to broker talks between the rebels and the government.
With the proposal, which the Kremlin would be unlikely to float publicly without first securing Damascus' word that it would indeed take part, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure on Syria to talk to the opposition.
Russia has shielded Assad's government from U.N. action and kept shipping weapons to the military, but it is growing increasingly difficult to protect the regime as the violence grinds on.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his call Monday for Syria to negotiate with the opposition, saying before meeting al-Moallem that "the situation in Syria is at a crossroads now." He also warned that further fighting could lead to "the breakup of the Syrian state."
Past government offers for talks with the opposition have included a host of conditions, such as demanding that the rebels first lay down their arms. Those proposals have been swiftly rejected by both activists outside Syria and rebels on the ground.
Both sides in the conflict in recent weeks have floated offers and counteroffers to hold talks on the crisis.
In a speech in January, Assad offered to lead a national dialogue to end the bloodshed, but said he would not talk with the armed opposition and vowed to keep fighting. The opposition rejected the proposal.
This month, the SNC's al-Khatib said he would be open to discussions with the regime that could pave the way for Assad's departure, but that the government must first release tens of thousands of detainees. The government refused, and even members within the coalition balked at the idea of talks.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Cairo, al-Khatib accused the regime of procrastinating and said it had derailed his dialogue offer by not responding to the coalition's conditions.
"We are always open to initiatives that stop the killing and destruction, but the regime rejected the simplest of humanitarian conditions. We have asked that the regime start by releasing women prisoners and there was no response," he said. "This regime must understand that the Syrian people do not want it anymore."
The U.S.'s Kerry on Monday urged rebel leaders not to skip the Rome meeting and insisted that more help is on the way.
Kerry made a public plea at a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and also called al-Khatib "to encourage him to come to Rome," a senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Meanwhile, the fighting inside Syria rages on.
The Observatory reported heavy clashes Monday near a police academy in Khan al-Asal just outside Aleppo.
Rebels backed by captured tanks launched an offensive on the facility Sunday. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said at least 13 rebels and five regime troops were killed.
In another part of Aleppo, rebels downed a military helicopter near the Mennegh airport, where there have been fierce clashes for months.
A video posted online by activists showed a missile being fired, a trail of white smoke and the aircraft going up in flames. Voices in the background shouted, "God is great!" as a man raised both hands in celebration.
The video appeared to be authentic and corresponded to other AP reporting.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Albert Aji in Damascus, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Matthew Lee in London, Bradley Klapper in Washington and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.