DAMASCUS - Pressure mounted Tuesday on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respond to a surprise offer of talks by his main political opponents, but a pro-regime daily said the initiative came two years too late.

Assad himself has yet to comment on the offer from Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition who said on Monday that “the ball is now in the regime’s court. They will either say yes or no”.

He was following up on his announcement last week that he was ready for talks with Assad’s regime - subject to conditions including the release of 160,000 detainees - on ending the conflict that has ravaged Syria for nearly 23 months. Khatib later elaborated, saying he was ready to meet Assad’s deputy, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa.

In the past the opposition has demanded Assad step down before talks can begin but analysts say Khatib’s change in stance stems from a belief the population will be bled dry while the West fails to act. Experts have also predicted Damascus would reject outright Khatib’s overture, and hinting at this, the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper said Tuesday that Khatib’s offer came too late.

“Despite their importance, the statements of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib are two years late. During that time, our finest young men have died, suffered wounds or been exiled, while we have lost our electricity and fuel infrastructure, alongside several military positions,” it said in an editorial. “So the ball is not in the Syrian state’s hands, as Khatib said,” Al-Watan added.

The Syrian National Council, the main component of the Coalition, rejected the possibility of holding any talks, saying it was committed to ousting the regime, while rejecting any dialogue with it, and protecting the revolution.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi threw his weight behind Khatib’s offer, however, and offered to play a role in any negotiations for a democratic transition in Syria. The US strongly backed Khatib’s dialogue call, with the State Department saying the regime “should sit down and talk,” while stressing its position was unchanged on bringing to account those who have committed atrocities.

Assad last month announced he was ready for talks with the opposition but ruled out meeting groups such as the National Coalition, which backs rebels seeking to overthrow his regime. Some regime opponents denounced Khatib’s offer, while others welcomed it.

“To negotiate is difficult. They may be doomed and they may fail, but the attempt to stop the bloodbath with a proposal so humane may reap more fruits than merely waiting,” prominent Kurdish activist Massoud Akko said on his Facebook page.

Hadi al-Abdallah, an activist in besieged Qusayr in the central province of Homs, told AFP he considered Khatib’s proposal naive. “We are not against the idea of negotiations per se. But we reject completely the idea of negotiating with this regime, which on previous occasions has taken advantage of opportunities for peace to gain time while it simply continued killing,” he said.

Another activist Abu Nadim, speaking from Damascus province, said: “We trust Khatib as a person. But in politics, we here feel that good intentions are not enough. Everyone wants Khatib’s wish to come true. But will it happen?” President Shimon Peres of Israel, whose reported air strikes against Syrian targets last week triggered a threat of retaliation from Damascus, said it was time the world acted to end the Syrian “tragedy”.

“The UN should task the Arab League with the immediate formation of a transitional government in Syria to save it from self-destruction. Assad, who has murdered tens of thousands has also murdered his future,” he told parliament.

Fresh violence meanwhile erupted Tuesday in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels clashed with troops near an army barracks, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Army tanks also shelled the districts of Qadam and Assali on the outer edges of Damascus, the Britain-based watchdog added. The UN says more than 60,000 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the outbreak of a revolt in March 2011 that morphed into an insurgency after the army launched a brutal crackdown on dissent. The UN food agency said Tuesday it will dramatically expand its aid operation in Syria to reach one million more people amid growing alarm over the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country.

“In February, we hope to scale up our operations and reach 1.75 million, then two million in March, and 2.5 million vulnerable Syrians in April,” said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme.