Moscow: Russian officials told visiting US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Friday that Moscow would continue backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad`s campaign against rebel forces despite peace talks due later this month.
Sherman`s visit came ahead of talks in Paris on Monday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that are due to focus on Moscow`s push to give Iran a formal seat at the so-called Geneva 2 negotiations despite opposition from Washington.
Sherman did not address reporters after her meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, Moscow`s two representatives at the Syria conference that is scheduled to begin January 22 in Switzerland.
But the Russian foreign ministry said the two Moscow diplomats told Sherman that Assad`s campaign against "terrorist groups" deserved comprehensive support.
"The Russian representatives stressed the importance of uniting efforts by the Syrian government and the patriotically-inclined opposition to fight terrorist groups whose activities are threatening not only the future of Syria, but also regional stability," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Moscow uses the phrase "patriotically-inclined opposition" to refer to Syrian groups that are not part of Assad`s ruling Baath party but which are sanctioned by the regime and do not include the foreign-based National Coalition opposition umbrella organisation or rebels fighting on the ground.
The Russian statement said the two sides agreed that the Geneva 2 conference -- a follow-up to July 2012 consultations that failed to put an end to the fighting -- must focus on engaging regime and opposition members in their first direct talks.
"The forum must give the start to direct Syrian talks based on the Geneva communique, whose frameworks call on the Syrians themselves to decide the issue of how their future government works," the Russian statement said.
The July 2012 talks -- involving world powers but no Syrian regime or rebel officials -- concluded with an agreement that Assad and his opponents should decide on a transitional government whose representatives suited all sides.
US officials interpreted the wording to mean that the deal excluded the possibility of Assad remaining in power.
But Russia -- its ties to Syria stretching back decades and involving weapons sales worth billions of dollars a year -- insists that Assad cannot be forced to step down through outside pressure because he retains strong domestic support.