Russian FM: Syrian opposition warms up to talks

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2013 8:26 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Tuesday urged Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to cooperate with the opposition in fighting "terrorists" and encouraged the regime to speed up the deliveries of humanitarian aid to the population — a call that reflects Moscow's attempt to position itself as a mediator in Syria peace talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also issued a rare compliment to the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, praising its agreement to come to the Russian capital for talks that would also involve other opposition forces.

Lavrov wouldn't say when the Moscow talks are set to be held. He added that the coalition chief, Ahmad al-Jarba, said he couldn't visit Moscow himself at the time when the talks are planned, but remains open for future contacts.

"We note the coalition's consent to come to Moscow for consultations as a positive step," Lavrov told a briefing. "We see signs that the coalition has become more realistic."

Since the start of the Syrian civil war that has killed 100,000 people over the last 2 1/2 years, Russia has been the key sponsor and ally of Assad's regime, repeatedly blocking United Nations Security Council resolutions that would slap it with sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin scored a major diplomatic victory in September by launching an initiative for Syria to surrender and dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles, a move that helped divert a looming U.S. military action.

Lavrov met Tuesday with a group of visiting Syrian officials and praised Damascus for honoring the chemical weapons deal.

But in a sign that Moscow could raise pressure on Assad to persuade it to take a more flexible stance ahead of the proposed Geneva talks, Lavrov also urged the regime to more actively engage in a dialogue with a moderate part of the opposition.

"It would be even better without waiting for convening Geneva 2 peace conference to launch the joint struggle together with the moderate secular opposition, the struggle against terrorists, who are trying to change power not only in Syria, but also in the entire region," Lavrov told visiting Syrian officials. "The fact of convening the conference may play a positive role so that reasonable people fighting in the ranks of the opposition would stop doing so and help uproot terrorists."

Lavrov also encouraged the Syrian government to facilitate the deliveries of humanitarian aid by "cutting bureaucratic procedures."