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Russia steps up diplomatic push for Syria peace talks

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, left, and political and media advisor to the Syrian President Bashar Assad, Bouthania Shaaban, foreground right, with other officials enter a hall in the Russian Foreign Ministry Building in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

MOSCOW: Russia hosted Syrian and Iranian delegations for separate rounds of talks Monday in a renewed diplomatic push for a Syrian peace conference in which Moscow says Tehran must play a role.

President Vladimir Putin, who has stepped up his personal involvement on the Syrian issue, also called Iran’s president to discuss the conflict.

Moscow wants to show it still has weight in the Middle East and has been emboldened by its success in helping to broker a deal under which Syria will destroy its chemical weapons, but Washington is wary of letting Iran join any peace conference.

“We regard Iran as a very important partner in all Middle Eastern affairs,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying at the start of talks with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

The meeting “will give us an opportunity to jointly look at how developments in and around Syria unfold,” Bogdanov said.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also reiterated that Iran should be part of Geneva II, as well as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, as they were the most influential Muslim countries, Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported him as saying.

“The conference, and everyone agrees with this, should be opened in the presence of “external players” which influence the situation one way or another or bear responsibility for maintaining peace and security,” he said.

“We want this circle to be enlarged because last year’s conference was not attended by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and these are two countries that are associated with the main sponsors of different warring factions in Syria,” Lavrov added.

Lavrov and Syrian opposition sources both confirmed that Bogdanov had recently held talks in Istanbul with leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

The Syrian sources said the discussions had included opening humanitarian corridors to besieged rebel-held areas in Syria as well as the planned Geneva peace conference.

Lavrov said Monday that rebels were using humanitarian corridors to transfer weapons and money throughout Syria, and stressed that they must only be used for transporting aid, according to ITAR-TASS, citing an interview with Russia’s official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

The opposition coalition has said that the opening up of humanitarian corridors is a precondition for attending the long-awaited Geneva II talks.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the United States announced back in May they would try to bring Syria’s government and opposition together in such a conference, but a date has so far proved elusive.Lavrov said it could happen before the end of the year.

“[U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry and I promised to do all we can to make that happen,” Lavrov told the Gazeta Monday, referring to a telephone conversation the two had Sunday.

But Lavrov added that the timing of the conference would “depend on how well our Western partners do their homework of persuading the opposition to reject preconditions.”

The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, agreed last week to attend the Geneva conference but insisted there could be no future role for Assad in Syria.

Russia says his exit from power cannot be a precondition for a peace process.

Lavrov also said Monday that leaders of the coalition were considering an invitation to travel to Moscow for the first time for talks aimed at preparing for the conference.

“They did not refuse to come to Moscow, they are studying our invitation,” Lavrov told a news conference.

However, Syrian opposition sources said coalition head Ahmad Jarba had decided Sunday against further talks proposed by Russia for Nov. 25, citing a scheduling conflict. Afaq Ahmad, an independent opposition figure, said Saudi Arabia – a staunch opponent of Assad – had probably pressured Jarba not to attend.

As well as the Iranian diplomats, a Syrian government delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was also in Moscow for talks Monday, but there was no immediate word on how Russia’s talks with either of the teams had gone.

Separately, Syria’s envoy to Russia, Ambassador Riad Haddad, was quoted Monday as saying insufficient funding and unspecified actions by the militants fighting to oust Assad were hampering Damascus’ chemical disarmament drive.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped to convene the Geneva II peace conference in “mid-December.”

“I am not able to announce at this time any date. Our target is mid-December,” Ban told reporters during a visit to Lithuania.

He said U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would try to set the date in a meeting with Russian and U.S. representatives on Nov. 25.

Also, the Pentagon said Monday that Washington would keep two Patriot missile batteries in Turkey for another year to help bolster the country’s defenses against threats from Syria’s civil war.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 19, 2013, on page 1.

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