UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged countries supporting opposing sides in the Syrian conflict on Monday to redouble efforts to reach agreement on a list of opposition groups to be invited to talks with the government scheduled to start in just a week.
Ban's appeal came as the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, briefed the Security Council on his efforts to get the talks started and the leaders of Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Qatar, an opposition backer, met in Moscow to try to narrow their differences.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the United Nations is focusing on starting the talks on Jan. 25, but he said it can't send out invitations until the key countries agree on an opposition list. He hinted the talks could be delayed, telling reporters they would be notified "as soon as we can" if there is any "slippage" in the date.
Uruguay's U.N. Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, the current council president, provided no details about de Mistura's video briefing to the council, except to say that he is working to convene the meeting on Jan. 25. He said de Mistura got assurances from the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia that Riyadh's rupture of diplomatic relations with Tehran "is completely isolated" from the Syria peace effort.
The conflict in Syria, which began nearly five years ago with protests against Assad, has morphed into an all-out war that has killed more than 250,000 people. The push for negotiations to end the conflict has accelerated with an estimated 4 million Syrians fleeing the country, overwhelming its neighbors and heading to Europe — and the plight of some 400,000 people trapped in besieged areas where an unknown number have starved to death.
A month ago, the Security Council unanimously supported a peace process for Syria that is set to begin this month, with talks between the government and opposition and a cease-fire. This is to be followed by a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.
The backing of the U.N.'s most powerful body, divided for years over Syria, came amid growing recognition by world powers that the top priority in Syria should be the defeat of the Islamic State group, which has exploited the country's years of chaos and created a base from which it promotes deadly attacks abroad.
The Security Council vote followed a meeting of ministers from 17 nations who came to New York to try to build momentum for a cease-fire and the start of negotiations. De Mistura was tasked with pulling together a final negotiating team for the Syrian opposition.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after Monday's council meeting that all 15 council members believe that talks must start.
But he said de Mistura "believes that additional work needs to be done for the U.N. to start sending out invitations."
Churkin stressed that the opposition delegation must be "comprehensive" and include "not only people from the area."
"We think that if some well-known opposition leaders are not invited it's going to make the delegation less inclusive than it should be," he said, without elaborating.
Diplomats and observers say one dispute is over the groups Ahrar-as-Sham and Jaish al-Islam which Russia and Syria consider "terrorists" but Saudi Arabia, the United States and others view as legitimate opposition groups.
In Moscow, Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani met with President Vladimir Putin, who began their talks by hailing Qatar's role in regional affairs and voicing hope that they would be able to "search for ways of settlement of the most difficult issues."
Al-Thani, on his first visit to Moscow, said Qatar wants to develop ties with Russia and find a solution for problems "concerning stability of some of the countries of the region."
Hopes for a quick end to the Syria conflict are dim, however, with Assad's forces scoring a series of battlefield gains which could make the government less inclined to negotiate a compromise. The issue of Assad's future also remains a serious stumbling block.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters after the talks that Russia and Qatar agreed on the need to convene the Syria talks this month. He added that the two nations agreed to "raise the efficiency of anti-terrorist action in the framework of international efforts."
His Qatari counterpart, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, said the two leaders had agreed "on the need to search for a political settlement in Syria."
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.