BEIRUT: Russia said Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad could be prepared to meet with “moderate” rebels at Geneva II, but expressed doubts that Western nations could persuade opposition elements to take part in the conference by next month.
“I do not rule out that the armed opposition, if it does not stand for extremist or terrorist views, could very well be represented,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters. “By the way, this is something that President Assad has said as well.”
His comments came as an advanced chemical weapons disarmament team arrived in Damascus and an activist group said at least 115,206 people had now been killed in the war.
“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 115,206 people from the start of Syria’s revolution on March 18, 2011, to September 30, 2013,” the Britain-based group said.
Among the dead were 47,206 fighters loyal to Assad and 23,707 rebels seeking his ouster.
Another 41,533 civilians lost their lives in the war, among them 6,087 children and 4,079 women, the Observatory added.
Lavrov stressed that it was up to Western and Arab governments to make sure that representatives of the armed opposition agreed to attend the Geneva meeting despite growing differences among their ranks.
But he questioned whether the West could manage to do this by November.
“Until recently, we expected that our Western partners, who committed themselves to bring the opposition to the conference, would be able to do this fairly quickly,” Lavrov said.
“But they did not manage to do it quickly. I do not know if they will manage to do it by the middle of November.”
The doubts of Damascus’ most important ally over the timing of Geneva II followed remarks in which the international envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the target date of mid-November was “not 100 percent certain” and cited disunity among rebels.
This year’s Geneva meeting has been repeatedly delayed because of disagreements between Moscow and the West about who should be party to the talks.
Syria is insisting Assad’s departure is not on the table, despite it being a key demand of the rebels and their backers.
“ Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president. This is the Syrians’ choice,” Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told journalists Tuesday.
“All the people call for President Bashar Assad to be president of this state, whatever the opposition, the Americans and the traitors say.”Zoubi added that Assad has the “right to make a decision” on whether he will run for a new term in mid-2014, when his current mandate expires.
Russia has backed Assad’s regime throughout the 30-month conflict and is the chief architect of a Syrian chemical arms disarmament plan that was backed by the U.N. Security Council following the Aug. 21 nerve agent attack near Damascus.
A U.N. team of weapons inspectors that left Damascus Monday probed seven alleged gas attacks and hopes to present a final report by late October.
Earlier this month it submitted an interim report that confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in the Aug. 21 attacks.
The U.S. threatened military action in response, accusing forces loyal to Assad of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.
Syria denied the allegations but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal, effectively heading off a strike, under a U.S.-Russian deal which was enshrined in landmark U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118.
Syria has already submitted a detailed account of its chemical arsenal and Assad told Italian TV his government “will comply” with the terms of the resolution.
An advance disarmament team arrived in Syria Tuesday tasked with the challenge of cataloguing its arsenal of chemical arms ahead of their destruction.
A team of 19 inspectors and 14 U.N. staff members arrived in the Syrian capital in a 19-vehicle convoy, having been escorted from the Lebanese border by two Syrian Foreign Ministry representatives. The experts set up a logistics base for their immediate work, the U.N. said in a statement.
Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said Sunday the inspectors’ priority was to reach the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.
Some of the inspectors will double-check Syria’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will plan the logistics for visits to all sites where chemicals or arms are reported to be stored.
Within a week, a second group of inspectors is scheduled to arrive and form teams that will fan out to individual locations.
On the ground, violence raged Tuesday in flashpoints around the country, including Damascus and Aleppo province in the north, the Observatory said.
In the north, at least 20 rebel fighters, including from Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, were killed in army bombing, the Observatory said.