BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s top political opposition leader on Wednesday expressed a willingness for the first time to talk with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad, softening what had been an absolute refusal to negotiate with the government in an increasingly chaotic civil war.
The opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, coupled his offer with two demands: the release of what he described as 160,000 prisoners held by Mr. Assad’s government and the renewal of all expired passports held by Syrians abroad — a gesture apparently aimed at disaffected expatriates and exiled opposition figures who could not return home even if they wanted to.
Sheik Khatib’s offer, published in Arabic on his Facebook page, quickly provoked sharp criticism from others in the Syrian opposition coalition, with some distancing themselves from it and complaining that he had not consulted with colleagues in advance. The sheik later clarified that he was expressing his opinion, while he chided critics among his colleagues whom he described as “those sitting down on their couches and then saying, ‘Attack — don’t negotiate.’ ”
The mutual criticisms reflected the fractiousness that has plagued the Syrian opposition movement since its struggle to depose Mr. Assad began as a peaceful political movement nearly two years ago. Nonetheless, the offer represented a potential opening for dialogue in the conflict, which has threatened to destabilize the Middle East.
Sheik Khatib made the offer as the United Nations, scrambling to raise money to manage the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, reported at an international donor conference in Kuwait that a surprisingly strong number of pledges had come in, surpassing the $1.5 billion goal set by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Today we have seen global solidarity in action,” Mr. Ban said in a report about the conference on the United Nations Web site. “We have brought a message of hope to the millions of Syrians who have been affected by this terrible crisis.”
The conflict has killed more than 60,000 Syrians, forced at least 700,000 to flee to neighboring countries and left more than two million displaced inside Syria.
“I announce that I am willing to sit down with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo or Tunisia or Istanbul,” Sheik Khatib said in the offer. His motivation, he said, was “to search for a political resolution to the crisis, and to arrange matters for the transitional phase that could prevent more blood.”
There was no immediate response by the Syrian government to the statement by Sheik Khatib, a respected Sunni cleric who once was the imam at the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus. His unified Syrian opposition coalition, created at a meeting in Qatar two months ago, has been formally recognized by the Arab League, the European Union and the United States.
Syrian political experts said they strongly doubted that the Syrian government would entertain Sheik Khatib’s offer, partly because that could create the impression that Mr. Assad would look weak if he were to accept the conditions.
“All the same, it is an indication of a new willingness to talk to Assad himself by the Syrian opposition,” said Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the Syria Comment blog, which tracks developments in the conflict. “It is hard to believe that real negotiations could begin anytime soon, but the language of negotiation has been opened,” he said in an e-mail.
Sheik Khatib’s offer was made less than a day after the peace envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, gave the United Nations Security Council a pessimistic prognosis for negotiations.
It also followed a massacre discovered on Tuesday in the northern city of Aleppo. Anti-Assad activists posted videos online of scores of bound victims who had been shot in the head and dumped in the Qweig River. Some insurgents said there were more than 100, most of them men in their 20s and 30s who had been abducted or arrested.
Anti-Assad activists contacted in the Aleppo region said many of the men had been detained at an Air Force Security Branch prison in Aleppo. Hazem Alizizi, a spokesman for an activist network in Azaz, a town outside Aleppo, said that the killers had apparently increased the river’s current temporarily by opening flow-control valves so that the bodies could be swept away.
“We can’t tell the exact number of victims because the search process is still going on,” he said in an interview via Skype. “We expect to find more corpses. Now we are using nets and metal barriers fixed in the water to find the bodies.”
The Syrian government has denied involvement and has accused jihadist insurgents of responsibility, just as it has done after other atrocities, including two major explosions a few weeks ago that killed more than 80 people at the University of Aleppo. Outside assessments based on video of the university blasts suggested that a Syrian military missile was responsible.
Sheik Khatib did not hide his contempt for Mr. Assad’s government in his statement, saying, “One can’t trust a regime that kills children and attacks bakeries and shells universities and destroys Syria’s infrastructure and commits massacres against innocents, the last of which won’t be the Aleppo massacre, which is unprecedented in its savagery.”
But he decided to reach out, he wrote, partly because the Syrian government had publicly invited political opposition leaders this week to return to Damascus for what it called a dialogue.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Assad said in a speech that he was open to reconciliation talks but not with political opponents he described as terrorists, the government’s generic term for armed insurgents. At the time, most members of the political opposition dismissed Mr. Assad’s speech as meaningless.
The opposition’s longstanding position has been that Mr. Assad must resign as a condition of any talks and that he could not be part of any transitional government. Mr. Assad and his aides have said he has no intention of resigning and may even run for another term next year.