MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's foreign minister said Friday the next round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva would be postponed until late February, as rebel factions continued to clash with al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Syria in some of the worst infighting in the past few years.
The U.N.-mediated talks in Switzerland, previously set for Feb. 8, will instead take place by the end of the month, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in opening a mini-summit in Moscow with state-approved representatives of the Syrian opposition.
He did not explain the postponement.
Rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad declined an invitation from Lavrov to meet in Moscow, raising doubts the meeting could offer something beyond another discussion panel on the nearly six-year-old conflict.
But several factions led an opposition delegation to talks with Russian and Turkish officials this week in Kazakhstan, as well as indirect talks with Syrian government representatives, in an attempt to shore up a shaky Dec. 30 cease-fire with Assad's forces.
Those talks, which brought the armed rebel factions face-to-face with Assad's representatives for the first time, ended Tuesday with an agreement among Russia, Turkey and Iran — all with forces deployed to the war-torn Mideast nation — to consolidate the truce, take joint action against extremist groups and jumpstart peace negotiations.
The Kazakhstan talks were also intended to prepare the way for the revival of the Geneva peace process, which stalled last April.
The fighting in northern Syria has complicated the rebels' position, however. Ongoing clashes with the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front has pushed several of the factions that attended Astana into the embrace of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group out of self-defense.
That potentially undermines their efforts to portray themselves as moderates prepared to play a role in a post-war transition period.
The clashes, which broke out Wednesday in the Idlib province, continued into Friday, according to Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman for the Fastaqim faction. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said other factions were caught up in the clashes as well.
Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province are host to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians who are threatened by government and rebel violence on a daily basis.
In the town of Atareb, in the Aleppo province, a few hundred protesters called on the rebel factions to unite against the Fatah al-Sham front in a demonstration recorded by Thiqa News Agency, an activist media outlet.
In a move certain to rattle Turkey, representatives of Syria's leading Kurdish party also attended the Moscow gathering on Friday. Turkey is waging a low-grade war against the Democratic Union Party in Syria, which Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its own borders.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kurdish participation in the Geneva process is "necessary."
According to Kurdish adviser Nasser Haj Mansour, two Syrian Kurdish representatives at the Moscow gathering — Khaled Issa and Rody Othman — presented Lavrov on Friday with a plan for a federalized Syria, which would diminish Assad's authority over the country and bolster the Kurds' gains in northern Syria.
The federalization proposal has in the past been rejected by Syrian rebels and Damascus, as well as Turkey, which is seeking to keep Syrian Kurds and their growing influence in check.
Lavrov, meanwhile, said that Russia has also floated a draft proposal for a future Syrian constitution in a bid to encourage debate — not as an attempt to enforce Moscow's will on the Syrians.
"We made an attempt in the draft to put together some common elements we heard from representatives of the government and the opposition," Lavrov said.
In the Kazakh capital of Astana, Syrian rebel factions had refused to discuss the draft.
"We did not even lift the paper off the table," said rebel legal adviser and spokesman Osama Abo Zayd.
Issa reported from Beirut.