DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- The opposition coalition said it gave qualified support to its leader's offer for a dialogue with President Bashar Assad to end the nearly 2-year-old civil war.
Opposition leader Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib's offer, made last week, initially was met with criticism within the Syrian opposition movement but leaders of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces changed their minds during the weekend, The New York Times reported Monday.
The opposition coalition is pressing for a definitive response from Bashar, whom they consider a brutal dictator, and has indicated he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country. The opposition has always said Assad's departure must be included in any political settlement to end the conflict but indicated it no longer is a condition for talks to begin, the Times said.
Al-Khatib said he would enter discussions with Assad's government only if it released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed expired passports of Syria's displaced, which includes large numbers of dissidents.
"We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully," al-Khatib said during an interview with al-Jazeera. "It is now in the hands of the regime."
Ali Haidar, Syria's minister of national reconciliation, told Russia Today the government was amenable to talks with opposition members who renounce violence. Haidar also said the government could consider the passport issue but not the release of prisoners.
In an interview with the al-Arabiya news network, al-Khatib suggested Assad could appoint Vice President Farouk al-Shara as his emissary because Shara's hands were not "stained with blood."
A spokesman for the opposition told the Times the coalition's board also decided to offer Assad a chance to escape prosecution, if he left the country.
"This is the best thing we are willing to offer if we were to have a dialogue with the regime," spokesman Walid al-Bunni said. "This is a concession we might bring up if we have a dialogue, but the basis for the dialogue should be the regime stepping down."
Meanwhile, Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij said Monday the government army has demonstrated its strength and training because Israeli forces last week chose to attack Syria's air defenses rather than its ground forces, state-run media reported.
Al-Freij, a general, said the Israeli attack on a research center in Jamraya was carried out in coordination between Israel and armed terrorist groups -- the government's characterization of opposition forces -- after the facility was hit several times by these groups attempting to capture and destroy it. (Reports from Israel indicated the attack was against a convoy ferrying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon.)
The general also charged that armed terrorist groups, also working with Israel, had planned to enter a refugee camp area to insinuate the Syrian army was entering the area to attack Palestinians. He also said terrorist groups were targeting Syria's infrastructure.