MUNICH (AP) — Syria's top opposition leader said Friday that he was willing to sit down for talks with President Bashar Assad's government to "ease the pain of the Syrian people," but emphasized that his goal is to "overthrow the regime by peaceful means."
Addressing a gathering of the world's top diplomats and defense officials at the Munich Security Conference, Moaz al-Khatib reiterated an offer first made on Wednesday, which had provoked an outcry from opposition groups that insist Assad must step down first.
"We do believe in the power of the world and we would like to overthrow the regime by peaceful means," al-Khatib said. But "as a gesture of goodwill we say, just to ease the pain of the Syrian people... we are ready to sit at the negotiating table with the regime."
Speaking through an interpreter, he said that in return, the regime should give a gesture of goodwill by releasing detainees.
Al-Khatib was chosen in November to head the Syrian National Coalition, a new umbrella group designed to represent most of the rebels and soothe Western concerns about the ability of the opposition to pull together and present a viable alternative to Assad's rule.
The comments echoed those earlier this week, marking a clear departure from the opposition line, which has been categorical refusal to talk to the government. He asked then for the government to first release tens of thousands of political prisoners.
That offer provoked an outcry, and al-Khatib backpedaled, saying he was just expressing his own opinion.
The U.S., its Western allies and most opposition groups insist Assad must step down first, a position that Syria's longtime ally Russia has strongly opposed.
Despite the controversy raised by the comments, they marked the first opening for the possibility of dialogue to end a nearly two-yearlong conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 60,000 people.
Al-Khatib was to meet on the sidelines of the conference with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who was also going to meet with the international peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — whose country has been under pressure to end its support for the Assad regime.
Brahimi said he was also going to meet with Lavrov, but that he seemed skeptical about achieving a breakthrough.
"One has to have some kind of hope, but hope doesn't mean being starry-eyed," he said. Of al-Khatib's willingness to hold talks with the regime, he said: "We may have a new tool in the toolbox to work with."
The Munich conference, in its 49th year, is renowned as a setting where senior officials are able to address policy issues in an informal setting.
In addition to Syria, the conflict in Mali took center stage at the three-day conference, which included a dozen heads of state and government and 70 foreign and defense ministers.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that the international cooperation in Mali could help make the country an "anchor of stability" in the region, as he urged nations to look at the mission as an example of how improved coordination can have long term benefits.
De Maiziere said in times of growing cutbacks to military spending, NATO, the European Union, the U.S. and others need to adopt a "strategy of resolute pragmatism" — pooling resources and contributing what they can, when they can.
In Mali, for example, many nations are cooperating, including Germany, which has provided military transport aircraft to take forces from the 15-nation West African regional group known as ECOWAS to Mali's capital, Bamako; France, which has combat troops on the ground helping the local forces in their fight against Islamic extremists; and the U.S., which is helping move French troops and equipment into the country and flying refueling missions.
Going forward, de Maiziere said, the mixture of the U.N., NATO and the EU along with cooperation with local and regional forces as the situation dictates "seems to be an approach we might put to more frequent use."
"In Mali, too, the cooperation between ECOWAS, France and the EU has started to that effect," he said. "If such a cooperation is successful it might serve as an anchor of stability with far-reaching effects on the region."
Heading to the conference, the U.S. vice president stopped Friday morning in the German capital of Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Biden told reporters his message was that without a strong Europe, "it is not conceivable how America's interests can be achieved around the world."
President Barack Obama wants to make Asia the focus of U.S. foreign policy in his second administration, reflecting the region's growing economic power and the rise of China.
De Maiziere suggested that the EU is also focusing more on the Pacific, and said "the USA should not consider their relations to Asia to be in contrast with our trans-Atlantic roots."
"Quite the contrary," he said. "What prevents us from building bridges together? We should consider joint trans-Atlantic options for cooperation in the Pacific."
Associated Press correspondents Geir Moulson and Robert H. Reid contributed to this report.