The internationally recognised leader of the Syrian opposition has offered to hold direct negotiations with the Assad regime for the first time, in a dramatic volte face.
A spokesman for Moaz al-Khatib, the Damascus cleric who leads the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Telegraph he was speaking "in a personal capacity" in making the offer.
But he said the Coalition would discuss the proposal "in the next few days", possibly even Thursday. If it agrees and President Bashar al-Assad makes good on his own offer of negotiation, the proposal could bring the first major breakthrough between the two sides for more than a year.
Mr Khatib posted the offer on Facebook, saying: "I announce I am ready for direct discussions with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul. I became aware thanks to the media that the regime in Syria has called on the opposition to enter into dialogue."
He said the offer depended on the release of political prisoners, and of exiles being allowed to return.
He did not explain why he had made the decision, or how he would persuade other members of the Coalition to go along with the change of heart – up to now the opposition has demanded Mr Assad step down before any talks take place. The Syrian National Council, the largest individual component, rejected the proposal immediately.
However, there are growing signs of unease, including among the Coalition's backers in the West and the Gulf, at the current impasse, particularly with radical jihadists playing an ever more prominent role in the fighting inside the country.
Mohammed Ali, Mr Khatib's spokesman, said the extent of the violence had to be acknowledged. "What he is thinking is to stop the blood, and to save the lives of the people," he said. "You can't say, 'fight, fight, fight'."
The Coalition is furious at the lack of support from the Western powers and Gulf states which negotiated its creation and promised to recognise it as "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people – in theory allowing aid to flow into its coffers and support to be directed to the rebels. There has been little sign of that, with focus instead turning to the plight of Syria's 700,000 refugees.
Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia each pledged $300 million to that cause yesterday, part of a United Nations appeal for $1.5 billion, now reached. Justine Greening, the international development secretary, more than doubled Britain's pledge from £21 million to £50 million.
Mr Khatib was a compromise choice to bring together the different factions – Arab and Kurdish, Islamist, Christian, Alawite and secular – in the opposition.
However, he has failed to win the international public profile garnered by leading figures in the opposition movement in Libya at an equivalent stage of the uprising there.