Syria talks begin, prospects dim

Published January 27th, 2015 - 05:00 GMT

Syrian opposition figures were meeting in Moscow on Monday as part of a new Russia-coordinated bid to wind down the war in Syria, but few held out any hope of a breakthrough.

Several prominent opposition figures have refused to join the four-day talks, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has also cast doubt on the Moscow initiative bearing any fruit.

Nevertheless, members of the Syrian government were expected to join the closed-door talks later in the week.

No senior Russian officials are due to take part in the talks, but one senior official said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov might join the conference later this week if the initial signs are good.

Lavrov said the aim of the first two days of discussion was to "provide a platform for the Syrian opposition so that they can develop some shared approaches to talks with the government."

"We plan that after two days of contacts between Syrians in Moscow, the representatives of the Syrian government will join the opposition, again just in order to establish personal contact," he said in televised remarks on Monday.

His deputy Mikhail Bodganov said that up to 30 members of the Syrian opposition could join the talks and that Lavrov may meet members of the opposition on Wednesday "if there is a constructive mood."

Lavrov said the Moscow meetings were part of a process aimed at restarting UN-mediated talks to end nearly four years of civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives since 2011.

Since the conflict began, two UN mediators have hosted high profile conferences in Geneva, only to quit in frustration after talks failed to yield meaningful progress.

In November talks with Syrian government figures in Russia, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s readiness to offer Moscow as the venue for a restart of abandoned peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, but warned the task was “difficult” and required more time.

“Considering the conflicts that have built up over recent years, considering the persistent attempts at external interference in the Syrian conflict, it is clear that [preparations for direct negotiations] are far from simple and will need time,” he said.

The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, will head the government team which will join the talks on Wednesday.

The main opposition alliance, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), touted by Western and Arab countries as an interim government in exile, is boycotting the talks.

"Any talks should be held in a neutral country and overseen by the United Nations," a source in the coalition said in the run-up to the negotiations, referring to Russia's status as one of Assad's top allies.

Assad also appeared to pour cold water on the Russian initiative.

In an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine published on Monday, he called some of the Syrian opposition attending the talks "puppets" paid by Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Western countries like the United States, while others "don't represent anyone in Syria."

"You have to separate the national (opposition) and the puppets. Not every dialogue is fruitful," he said

Asked to comment of the chances of the talks succeeding, Assad said "optimism would be an exaggeration," but that "I would say we have hope in every action."

Washington has said it welcomed the Moscow talks but that it was up to the opposition whether to attend.

The talks come amid signs that Washington may be recalibrating its Syria policy to focus on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group, which has taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria, rather than toppling Assad.

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