1613 GMT: Opposition Talks May Be Falling Apart. Over the weekend, opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, held talks with the US, the UN, and Russia, where he offered to negotiate with the Assad regime on the condition that Assad is not part of any transitional government. Al Khatib's goal in the talks was to find a solution that would "help the regime leave peacefully." Now, he says, the ball is in Assad's court:
"The regime must take a clear stand [on dialogue] and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully," he said. "It is now in the hands of the regime."
Al-Khatib said that his initiative was "humanitarian" in order to save Syrian lives and what remains of the country's infrastructure after nearly two years of conflict.
"The big powers have no vision [for a solution] ... Only the Syrian people can decide on the solution."
Khatib faces three major challenges, all of which could unravel the efforts to end the crisis. The first, and arguably most important, is that the Assad regime has not responded to the call to negotiate, and has failed to abide by any other deals it has made in the past. All previous statements have suggested that President Bashar al Assad will not leave his government, the regime will not stop its military campaign against "terrorists," a label for all the rebels (and peaceful protesters) who have resisted Assad rule, and the opposition has no legitimacy. Elections have not changed this, the Arab League deal did not change this, and the UN negotiated ceasefire did not change this. It's possible that this will change, but it's unlikely.
The next problem is that Russia, Iran, and the Assad government, are all likely to put too many conditions onto any negotiations - if the parties are all willing to negotiate in the first place. According to today's report from The Guardian, Iran may already have serious concerns about holding any talks:
After this weekend’s talks in Munich Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition’s executive committee said the talks ended in failure.
“It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution,” Bunni told Reuters.
Iran and Russia are Assad's lifelines --- their military and monetary support have kept the regime afloat, and they have watched Assad's back in the international community as well --- so if there are reservations there, the talks will go nowhere.
Khatib's final challenge is withing the opposition itself. The Muslim Brotherhood representatives in the National Coalition have resisted the idea of negotiating with a regime that has this much blood on its hands. Some in the opposition's military wings appear to have favored a negotiated settlement, which is why these talks are possible, but others have also resisted. While the media's portrayal of the Syrian conflict as a "stalemate" is inaccurate, the reality is that some of the armed rebel leaders have realized that this war could take a very long time to settle. On the other hand, the confidence that the rebels will win and Assad will lose appears to be high enough that many in the opposition want to take their chances with the war rather than negotiate with the regime.
Then there is the possibility that not all of those who oppose Assad will accept any ceasefire. Jabhat al Nusra, in particular, and other hardline Islamists, see this fight as a holy war, a Jihad, a conflict where religious values, not practical considerations, are the only driving force. Such groups have historically paid little attention to the political agreements of non-combatants. If the National Coalition entered into a deal with the Assad regime, and the majority of the Free Syrian Army agreed to the deal, and the Assad regime abided by the deal (all big "ifs") but Jabhat al Nusra continued its attacks, any ceasefire would likely be crushed immediately.
Some have even wondered whether this debate will cause a permanent schism inside an already fractured opposition.
For now, however, the ball is in Assad's court. If the regime does not signal its willingness to negotiate now, then the rest of the debate is entirely academic.
1456 GMT: Airstrikes in Aleppo. More airstrikes today against a residential neighborhood of Aleppo, as the refugee crisis continues to grow. Al Jazeera English's Nisreen El Shamayleh reports:
James Miller takes over today's coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas, who is on the road, for getting us started.
0920 GMT: Former MP and Family Killed. State news agency SANA says an "armed terrorist group" has assassinated former MP Ibrahim Azzouz, his wife, and two daughters in the Sheikh Saeed section of Aleppo.
Insurgents took over the Sheikh Saeed area last week after several days of fighting.
A normal enough day in Damascus: a bright, cool winter morning, the sky is slightly hazy and a MiG fighter jet is hard at work bombing the southern suburbs.
On a break from lessons in a school next to the jet's target zone, children run in a playground, the younger ones chasing a football while small groups of teenage boys with thickly gelled hair begin to slope off, hands in pockets, for an illicit smoke.
The MiG circles overhead beneath the low cloud cover, then dives towards Daraya, the district next door. It is 10am and this is the ninth bombing run of the day.
A few of the children look up at the jet, but many don't. Air strikes in the capital used to be unusual, and people would stop and stare, pointing at the planes. Now they hardly draw a passing comment.
There is a word Damascenes use to describe how they are adjusting to the new, war-torn version of their country: timsahna, a term derived from the Arabic word for crocodile. It means, we've become crocodiles - in other words, thick-skinned.
A year or so ago, the sound of a single bullet being fired in southern Damascus would send frightened parents rushing round to pull their children out of schools. Now, unless their neighbourhoods are directly targeted by mortar shells or bombs, they don't pay too much attention to it. Then again, in lots of places there are no schools in session and thus no classes from which to remove your children.
Eleven women and 15 children were among the dead, according to the opposition group. Most of the shelling and casualties were in and near Aleppo, with 41 people killed, and Damascus and its suburbs, wehre 36 perished.
On Saturday, the head of the opposition National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib had met a series of high-ranking officials, including the Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministers for the first time. Yesterday it was the turn of the regime to highlight its politics, with President Assad hosting Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council.