CAIRO The opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal to end the country's civil war but President Bashar al-Assad must step down and cannot be a party to any settlement, members agreed after debating a controversial initiative by their president.
The meeting of the 70-member Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition began on Thursday before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Assad's last foreign allies, and as U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi renews efforts for a deal.
After an angry late night session in which coalition president Moaz Alkhatib came under strong criticism from Islamist and liberal members alike for proposing talks with Assad's government without setting what they described as clear goals, the coalition adopted a political document that demands Assad's removal and trial for the bloodshed, members said.
A draft document seen by Reuters that was circulated for debate said Assad cannot be party to any political solution and has to be tried, but did not directly call for his removal.
"We have adopted the political document that sets the parameters for any talks. The main addition to the draft is a clause about the necessity of Assad stepping step down," said Abdelbasset Sida, a member of the coalition's 12 member politburo who has criticised Alkhatib for acting alone.
"We removed a clause about a need for Russian and U.S. involvement in any talks and added that the coalition's leadership has to be consulted before launching any future initiatives," he added.
Still, the agreement marked a softening of tone by the coalition because previously it had insisted that Assad must step down before any talks with his government could begin.
In an indication that Syria's strongman remains defiant, Brahimi said Assad had told him he will remain president until his term ends in 2014 and then run for re-election.
Brahimi told al-Arabiya television he wants to see a transitional government formed in Syria that would not answer to any higher authority and lasts until U.N.-supervised elections take place in the country.
"I am of the view that U.N. peacekeepers should come to Syria as happened in other countries," Brahimi said.
BOMB, AIR STRIKES
The opposition front convened in Cairo on a day when a car bomb jolted central Damascus, killing 53 people, wounding 200 and incinerating cars on a busy highway close to the Russian Embassy and offices of the ruling Baath Party.
Syrian state television blamed the suicide blast on "terrorists". Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from the 23-month conflict that has killed around 70,000 people, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.
In the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, activists said warplanes bombed the old quarter for the first time since March 2011, when the town set in a wheat-growing plain rose up against Assad, starting a national revolt.
A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade which led an offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes on Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed, including eight rebel fighters.
Coalition member Munther Makhos, who was forced into exile in the 1970s for his opposition to Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, said supplies from Iran and Russia were giving government forces an awesome firepower advantage.
"It would be surreal to imagine that a political solution is possible. Bashar al-Assad will not send his deputy to negotiate his removal. But we are keeping the door open," Makhos said.
Makhos is the only Alawite in the Islamist-dominated coalition. The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam which accounts for about 10 percent of Syria's population but makes up most of the intelligence apparatus and dominates the army and the political system, has generally remained behind Assad.
With Alawites feeling increasingly threatened by a violent Sunni backlash, Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who played a role in the peaceful protest movement against Assad at the beginning of the uprising in 2011, has been calling on Alawites to join the revolution, saying their participation will help preserve the social fabric of the country.
Alkhatib's supporters say the initiative has popular support inside Syria from people who want to see a peaceful departure of Assad and a halt to the war that has increasingly pitted his fellow Alawites against Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
But rebel fighters on the ground, over whom Alkhatib has little control, are generally against the proposal.
The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which represents armed brigades, said in a statement it was opposed to Alkhatib's initiative because it ignored the revolt's goal of "the downfall of the regime and all its symbols".
"We are demanding his accountability for the bloodshed and destruction he has wreaked. I think the message is clear enough," said veteran opposition campaigner Walid al-Bunni, who supports Alkhatib.
Alkhatib formulated the initiative in broad terms last month after talks with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich but without consulting the coalition, catching the umbrella organisation by surprise.
Among Alkhatib's critics is the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised group in the political opposition.
A Brotherhood source said the group will not scuttle the proposal because it was confident Assad is not interested in a negotiated exit, which could help convince the international community to support the armed struggle for his removal.
"Russia is key," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are showing the international community that we are willing to take criticism from the street but the problem is Assad and his inner circle. They do not want to leave."
PLAY FOR RUSSIA
Russia hopes Alkhatib will visit soon in search of a breakthrough. Bunni said Alkhatib would not go to Moscow without the coalition's approval and that he would not be there at the same time as Moualem.
"In my opinion Alkhatib should not go to Moscow until Russia stops sending arms shipments to the Assad regime," Bunni said.
Formal backing by the coalition for Alkhatib's initiative gives it more weight internationally and undermines Assad supporters' argument that the opposition is too divided to be considered a serious player, opposition sources said.
Coalition members and diplomats based in the region said Brahimi asked Alkhatib in Cairo last week to seek full coalition backing for his plan, which resembles the U.N. envoy's own ideas for a negotiated settlement.
One diplomat in contact with the opposition and the United Nations had said a coalition approval of Alkhatib's initiative could help change the position of Russia, which has blocked several United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria.
The diplomat said only a U.N. resolution could force Assad to the negotiating table, and a U.N. "stabilisation force" may still be needed to prevent an all-out slide into a civil war.
"Brahimi has little hope that Assad will agree to any serious talks," the diplomat said. "Differences are narrowing between the United States and Russia about Syria but Moscow remains the main obstacle for Security Council action." (Editing by Paul Taylor and Mohammad Zargham)