Syria conflict: Government offers prisoner exchange

Ruined building in Daraya, Syria - 12 January Syria has been devastated by the conflict

Syria's foreign minister has said Damascus is ready to offer a prisoner exchange with rebels.

Speaking in Moscow, Walid Muallem also said he had presented a ceasefire plan for the second city Aleppo to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

The moves came as the opposition Syrian National Coalition meets in Istanbul to decide whether to go to next week's peace conference.

The coalition is under Western pressure to participate in the Geneva II talks.

However, many of its members have already pulled out.

Analysis

The Syrian minister's announcement mooting the idea of an Aleppo truce and a prisoner swap did not come out of the blue, nor was it a coincidence that it was made in Moscow.

It was the fruit of a ferment of top-level diplomatic energy that is going into preparing for the proposed peace talks in Switzerland next week, with the Americans and Russians working closely together to try to get their various allies on board.

The Western powers backing the Syrian opposition coalition were desperate for something to show the divided and suspicious rebels that it is worth attending the talks and that they are serious about producing results.

Given the degree of rancour and distrust on both sides, the opposition, meeting in Istanbul, is likely to dismiss the regime gesture as empty. But the evidence that it's not only the Americans who are twisting arms might help persuade some that it's worth giving the talks a chance.

Some are reluctant to go unless President Bashar al-Assad is excluded from any transitional government, but Damascus says there should be no pre-conditions for the talks.

Meanwhile Lebanese security officials said rockets fired from Syria had hit the Lebanese border town of Arsal, killing at least seven people, among them several children, and injuring at least 15.

Arsal, in the Bekaa valley, is predominantly Sunni and its residents have been broadly supportive of the Sunni-dominated uprising against President Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.

BBC map

The town has been flooded with refugees since the Syrian military launched an offensive nearby in November.

The three-year conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

An estimated two million people have fled the country and some 6.5 million have been internally displaced.

Aleppo 'example'

Mr Muallem said he was ready to exchange lists of prisoners.

"I informed Lavrov of our principled position in favour of an agreement to exchange those held in Syrian prisons for those taken by the other side," he said.

"We are ready to exchange lists and develop the necessary mechanism for accomplishing these goals."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Russia's Sergey Lavrov - 17 January Mr Muallem and Mr Lavrov were meeting ahead of the Geneva II conference

The Syrian foreign minister added that he had given Russia a ceasefire plan for Aleppo, which he said he wanted to "serve as an example to other towns".

Start Quote

US Secretary of State John Kerry

Any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side - whether President Assad or a member of the opposition - cannot be a part of the future”

End Quote John Kerry US Secretary of State

But correspondents say it remains far from clear that even a partial ceasefire could be achieved.

On Thursday, the two foreign ministers held talks with Iranian officials.

Mr Lavrov said there was "no hidden agenda" to their meeting. "This does not mean that we have some tri-party (peace) draft," he told reporters.

Mr Lavrov is keen for Iran to be part of the peace talks, but US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Tehran must first agree to the Geneva I communique which calls for a political transition in Syria.

Huge doubts

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says the Western powers were desperate to show the divided and suspicious rebels that it is worth attending the Geneva conference, and evidence that not only the Americans are twisting arms might help persuade some that it is worth giving the talks a chance.

The Syrian National Coalition is deeply divided, with its key bloc - the Syrian National Council - threatening to boycott the talks.

Of the 120 members of the coalition, 44 have already pulled out of the meeting in Switzerland.

But all of them - and their regional backers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia - are under huge pressure from the Americans and others to take up the opportunity to achieve the goals of the Syrian revolution, our correspondent says.

However, he adds that the coalition - if it goes to the talks - will be really weak, with huge doubts about how representative it is, as virtually none of the major fighting forces on the ground favour talking to the government.

Although the coalition is widely regarded abroad as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, several other opposition alliances and powerful Islamist rebel groups refuse to recognise its authority.

In the past fortnight alone, more than 1,000 people have been killed in battles between rebel forces and jihadist fighters, an activist group reports.

On the eve of the talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the opposition to join.

Mr Kerry stressed that their aim was to begin the process of setting up a transitional government to end the war in Syria.

"The United States urges a positive vote," Mr Kerry said.

He described the 21 January Swiss peace conference as the beginning of a process "that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution".

Mr Kerry stressed that only people "agreed by both the opposition and the regime" would be considered for a role in any future transitional government.

An official from the coalition told reporters earlier this week that they had been warned privately that Britain and the US would rethink their support if it did not attend the peace talks.

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