Moscow hosts Syria talks, little hope of breakthrough

Syrian opposition figures met 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.

AFP| Last Updated: Jan 26, 2015, 18:15 PM IST

Moscow: Syrian opposition figures met 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 his government were expected to join the closed-door talks later in the week.

Russia`s top diplomat Sergei 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.

Two previous rounds of talks in Geneva ended without success.

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

Russia, the most powerful backer of Assad`s government, hopes to burnish its credentials as a diplomatic mediator while it is itself mired in a showdown with the West over the conflict in Ukraine.

The main opposition group, the National Coalition, is not attending the Moscow talks, although five of its members were set to participate in a personal capacity.

"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 Assad`s top ally.Assad also appeared to pour cold water on the Russian initiative.

He told Foreign Affairs magazine in an interview published on Monday that some of the Syrian opposition attending the talks are "puppets" paid by Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Western countries including 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."

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."

In Syria, a government source earlier expressed hope that participants would agree on a roadmap to "fight terrorism", among other issues.

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

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