Russia presses US over Syria peace talks

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Russia urges the US to press the Syrian opposition to hold direct talks with al-Assad a day after Damascus offer while slamming extremists, who bet on an armed solution, in the opposition ranks

 Russia was set to urge the United States to press the Syrian opposition to hold direct talks with Damascus, but fears “extremists” now have the upper hand among President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry were meeting in Berlin when the Hürriyet Daily News went to press.

Before leaving for Berlin, Lavrov said that the new U.S. secretary of state seemed to grasp the gravity of the crisis in Syria, adding that Washington should lean on the Syrian opposition to drop demands that al-Assad must leave power before talks can start.

“In our contacts with other countries that can influence the parties in Syria, we have noticed a growing understanding of the need to influence both the government and, first of all, the opposition so that they do not come up with unrealistic requests as preconditions for the start of dialogue,” Lavrov said after talks with Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. “This is what we will discuss with John Kerry today. During our latest phone conversation I had the impression that he has an understanding of the acuteness of the situation in Syria.”

Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over Syria since unrest broke out almost two years ago. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in Moscow on Feb. 25 that the government was ready for talks, but opposition leaders and rebel commanders insist that al-Assad must go first.

Kerry responded dismissively to Muallem’s offer, saying it was hard to understand how people having Scud missiles fired at them would take an offer of dialogue seriously. Syria denies using ballistic missiles in the fighting. He also appeared to promise more concrete support to al-Assad’s opponents.

Lavrov signaled that the prospects for direct talks in Syria had receded in the past few days. “It seems extremists, who bet on a military solution to Syria’s problems and block initiatives to start dialogue, have for now come to dominate in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, including in the so-called [Syrian] National Coalition,” he said.

U-turn from opposition

Meanwhile, Syria’s opposition has cancelled a planned boycott of an international conference on the two-year conflict after appeals from Britain and the U.S.

Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague convinced the opposition to revoke its boycott on a Friends of Syria conference in Rome on Feb. 28 after an appeal at a joint press conference in London.

Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib announced on his Facebook page that his group would attend after Kerry and Hague “promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people.”

The Coalition had said Feb. 23 it was withdrawing from the 11-nation meeting and planned visits to Washington and Moscow in protest at the world’s silence over the mounting civilian death toll in Syria.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden welcomed the opposition’s change of heart on the talks in Rome, where they will meet with Kerry, and said it would be an important opportunity to find ways to support the Syrian people.

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