Is Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad really looking at entering peace talks with the rebels, two years into the civil war?
Reports today make it sound that way: "We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it ... Even with those who have weapons in their hands," Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem was quoted by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency. The comments were made during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Measuring the Syrian government's seriousness to participate in dialogue as it battles rebels across the country is difficult, to say the least. In November 2011 it agreed to allow an Arab League observer mission to visit flashpoint areas of Syria and a similar UN monitoring mission was also agreed to last year.
But both endeavours failed utterly – with over one hundred people slaughtered in Houla when UN observers were located in nearby Homs and in Damascus.
What is interesting about today's news is the where and when: Mr. Mouallem announced the Syrian government's change of heart in Moscow. This could signal a change in Russia's position, with Moscow having back President Bashar al-Assad's regime since day one of the revolt.
Mouaz AlKhatib, the head of the internationally-recognized opposition, managed to split Syrian opposition members when unilaterally declaring he would negotiate with the Syrian regime if Damascus released 160,000 political prisoners and renew the passports of Syrian activists abroad on January 30.
Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamil has denied that the authorities were ignoring Mr. AlKhatib's initiative, saying it was he who had ignored a previous government initiative.
Ali Haider, the regime-appointed minister for national reconciliation, said last week he was ready to meet Syria's armed opposition but his own political strength is limited.
But behind this rhetoric, the regime has no interest in serious discussion with anyone – opposition or others. The individuals who control the levers of power are hell-bent on a military solution, and will fight with all the power they can muster.
The opposition and the international community are facing a Mafia-type leadership, and it is hard to avoid concluding that the talks are merely window dressing.