DAMASCUS, Syria — Russia and the Arab League proposed Wednesday to broker talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar Assad's regime to try to resolve the country's civil war, while a government airstrike on a rebellious Damascus suburb killed at least 20 people.
The 23-month-old conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000 people and laid waste to the country's cities, has repeatedly defied international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Wednesday's offer from Moscow, one of Assad's closest allies, suggested the regime could be warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin and the Arab League are attempting to establish direct contact between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Sitting down at the negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparably damaging Syria, he said.
"Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it's a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people," Lavrov said in Moscow, where he hosted league officials and several Arab foreign ministers.
Both Lavrov and Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby said their main priority was creating a transitional government in Syria to navigate a way out of the conflict.
No conditions for the Syrian negotiations have been set. Lavrov said both sides' readiness to begin talks was "the most important thing."
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead a delegation to Moscow on Monday, and Russia is expecting a visit in March from the opposition Syrian National Coalition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib.
Al-Khatib has said he is open to talks with the regime that could pave the way for Assad's departure, but that the Syrian leader must first release tens of thousands of detainees. The government has refused.
Russia's proposal Wednesday got a cool reception from the opposition.
"We cannot agree to that," said Abdelbaset Sieda, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition. "Assad and his group must go first. After that we can discuss with others in the regime who didn't share in the killing of our people."
Still, Wednesday's proposal was notable because it emanated from Russia – Assad's chief advocate on the international stage. It is unlikely that Moscow would publicly propose to host talks without having first secured Damascus' word that it would indeed sit down with the opposition.
The timing also might mean the regime is showing a willingness to negotiate.
Syria's rebels have notched a series of tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation's largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking airbases in the northeast. They also have cut off a key highway in Damascus and are making forays to within a mile of the heart of the heavily guarded capital.
The air raid Wednesday hit the Damascus suburb of Hamouriyeh, killing at least 20 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More people were believed to be buried under the debris.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll higher, saying up to 35 were killed and dozens more were wounded.
Amateur videos posted online showed several vehicles on fire as thick black smoke billowed from a street. The videos show the bodies of two people, who were burned, in a pickup truck and the charred corpse of another person lying on the ground.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting on the events by The Associated Press.
Earlier Wednesday, two mortars crashed into a sports complex in the normally calm neighborhood of Baramkeh in central Damascus, killing one soccer player and wounding three more.
The mortar attack was the second in as many days in Damascus. On Tuesday, two mortars exploded near one of Assad's palaces, but no one was hurt.
The state news agency said the mortars that hit a complex housing Tishrin Stadium and a hotel killed Youssef Suleiman from al-Wathbah club based in Homs. He was wounded inside the hotel as players were getting ready for practice and died later at a hospital.
Suleiman, a striker, had played internationally on one of Syria's national youth teams. His teammates said he was the father of a 6-month-old baby.
State TV broadcast video of what it said was the hotel. The explosion blew out the windows on the first floor of the building, and shattered glass covered three beds in one of the rooms in which a bloodied duffle bag lay on the floor.
"We were collecting our things about to head to the stadium when we heard the first explosion and the windows were blown off," said Ali Ghosn, a 20-year-old al-Wathbah player.
"Youssef was hit in the neck. We ran out to the corridor when the second explosion struck and I saw Youssef fall down bleeding from his neck," he told the AP in Damascus as some of his colleagues wept.
The attack occurred a few hours before the team was to play the Hama-based al-Mawaair club in Syria's domestic league, which has been delayed several times because of the violence. The game was postponed after the mortar strike.
The nine-team league got under way just last week with all matches scheduled to be played in the heavily guarded capital in front of empty stands.
Assad has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state even as rebels edge closer to his seat of power and targeted attacks suggest rebels may be trying to shatter the sense of normalcy he has tried to portray in the capital.
Also Wednesday, Syrian rebel army chief Gen. Salim Idriss told Al-Arabiya TV that if the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah does not end its involvement in Syrian towns near the border, "the Free Syrian Army will pound Hezbollah's positions with all the weapons it has."
Syrian activists have said that Hezbollah fighters clashed with rebels in Sunni and Shiite villages just inside Syria over the weekend.
A local Lebanese official in Hermel, near the border, said Hezbollah fighters had entered Syria to protect the Shiite villages. Two of them were killed, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Hezbollah matters.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
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Turkey has struck the Syrian military repeatedly in response to shelling and mortar rounds from Syria since Oct. 3, when shells from Syria struck the Turkish village of Akcakale, killing two women and three children. The incident prompted NATO to convene an emergency meeting and Turkey sent tanks and anti-aircraft batteries to the area. Turkey's military has also scrambled fighter jets after Syrian helicopters flew close to the border. <em>Caption: Turkish soldiers patrols as Syrian nationals pass the border between Syria and Turkey on November 10, 2012, near the town of Ceylanpinar. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
There are about 120,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkish camps, with up to 70,000 more living in Turkey outside the camps. Thousands more wait at the border, held up as Turkey struggles to cope with the influx. Turkey also hosts much of the opposition and rebel leadership. <em>Caption: A Syrian-Kurdish woman refugee sits in the courtyard of a house in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, bordering Syria, on November 10, 2012. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Turkey has called for a buffer zone in Syria where the opposition and civilians would be protected, a step that would likely require international enforcement of a no-fly zone. Russia and China have blocked robust moves against the Syrian regime at the U.N. Security Council, and the United States has been reluctant to use its military in another Mideast conflict. <em>Caption: Turkish soldiers patrols as Syrian nationals pass the border between Syria and Turkey on November 10, 2012, near the town of Ceylanpinar. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Israel on Monday became the second country to strike the Syrian military, after Turkey. An Israeli tank hit a Syrian armored vehicle after shells from fighting in Syria exploded in Israel-controlled Golan Heights. A day earlier, Israel fired a warning shot near a group of Syrian fighters. <em>Caption: Israeli tanks, one in position, the other getting into a firing position in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>
Syrian shells have exploded inside the Golan several times in recent weeks damaging apple orchards, sparking fires and spreading panic but causing no injuries. In early November, three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone, and in a separate incident an Israeli patrol vehicle was peppered with bullets fired from Syria; no one was hurt in the incident and the Israeli military deemed it accidental. <em>Caption: Smoke rises after shells fired by the Syrian army explode in the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>
There is concern in Israel that Assad may try to spark a conflict with Israel, opening up the potential for attacks by Lebanon's militant Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel has also warned that Syria's chemical weapons could be turned on the Jewish state. Still, while no friend of Assad, Israel is also worried that if he is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare. <em>Caption: Israeli troops and UN peacekeepers inspect on November 8, 2012 the area where three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Alonei Habashan in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mortars and shells from the Syrian side regularly crash in Lebanon, causing several casualties, though Lebanese forces have never fired back. More dangerously, Syria's conflict has heightened deep rivalries and sectarian tensions in its smaller neighbor. Lebanon is divided between pro-Assad and anti-Assad factions, a legacy of the nearly three decades when Damascus all but ruled Lebanon, until 2005. Assad's ally, the Hezbollah militia is Lebanon's strongest political and military movement. <em>Caption: Lebanese army commandos deploy in the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods where clashes are taking place between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli on October 23, 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
On Oct. 19, a car bomb assassinated Lebanon's top intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria and Hezbollah for the assassination. The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen repeated clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites – the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. Battles in the city in May and August killed at least 23 people total and wounded dozens. <em>Caption: A memorial poster of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated Friday, hangs near the spot Friday's car bomb attack that killed Al-Hassan, in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)</em>
The kidnapping of Lebanese Shiites in Syria by rebels has also had repercussions in Lebanon. In May, Shiites blocked roads and burned tires in protest over the abductions, and later in the summer a powerful Shiite clan took 20 Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon captive in retaliation, all of whom have since been released. Lebanon also shelters about 100,000 Syrian refugees. <em>Caption: A Syrian man Firas Qamro, 31, who was injured during clashes that erupted between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)</em>
Jordan has taken the brunt of the refugee exodus from Syria, with some 265,000 Syrians fleeing across the border. Around 42,000 of them are housed at Zaatari, a dust-filled refugee camp, where riots have broken out several times by Syrians angry over lack of services. A growing number of stray Syrian missiles have fallen on Jordanian villages in the north in recent weeks, wounding several civilians. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 photo, a Jordanian army vehicle carries Syrian refugees who have fled violence in their country having crossed into Jordanian territory with their families near the town of Ramtha. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)</em>
Late last month, a Jordanian border patrol officer was killed in clashes with eight militants trying to cross into Syria. Hours earlier, Jordan announced the arrest of 11 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in Jordan. <em>Caption: Jordanian border soldiers guard newly-arrived Syrian refugee families after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha , Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo / Mohammad Hannon)</em>
Sunni and Shiite fighters from Iraq have made their way to Syria to join the civil war – the former on the side of the opposition, the latter siding with Assad's regime, according to Iraqi officials and Shiite militants. Sunni al-Qaida fighters are believed to be moving between Iraq and Syria, and some al-Qaida fighters in Iraq's western Anbar province have regrouped under the name of the Free Iraqi Army, a nod to the rebels' Free Syrian Army, Iraqi officials say. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, March 17, 2012 file photo, Syrian security officers gather in front the damaged building of the aviation intelligence department, which was attacked by one of two explosions in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi, File)</em>
About 49,000 Syrian refugees have temporarily resettled in Iraq, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The United States has pressured Baghdad to stop Iranian planes suspected of ferrying arms to Syria from using Iraqi airspace. Iraq has so far acknowledged only forcing two planes to land for inspection and said it didn't find any weapons either time. <em>Caption: Syrian refugees rest as they have crossed the border by the Iraqi town of Qaim, 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)</em>