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Syrian government and 'tolerated' opposition in Moscow talks

'Soft subjects' such as future talks and addressing the humanitarian crisis will be discussed
Negotiators attend talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition in Moscow on 28 January, 2015 (AFP)

On Monday, members of the Syrian opposition groups met with Russian mediators in Moscow, as a prelude to sitting down with the Syrian government delegation on Wednesday to discuss the humanitarian issues in Syria, as well as the possibility for future talks.

Analysts say that Russia is working on building its profile as a potential essential mediator in the conflict, in addition to curbing the threat that the Islamic State poses to its national security.

However, key groups from the opposition have chosen not to attend the talks, as the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition did not participate. One of the leading opposition activists was prevented from being in Moscow due to a travel ban imposed on him by the Syrian government.  

Louay Hussein, the leader of the Building the Syrian State party, was invited by Russia to join in the talks but could not leave the country due to his travel ban, which followed his release on bail in February after three months in jail. According to the court verdict, he was arrested for having “weakened national sentiment”.

Instead, it is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), described as the “tolerated” opposition by the Syrian government, which will lead the talks with their counterparts.

The talks will run until 9 April. There seems to be little hope that progress will be made. Previous talks were held in late January in the Russian capital but no tangible headway was made to ending the conflict.

“The main idea this time is to agree on a precise agenda for further negotiations,” said a source from the Syrian government delegation to AFP. Both delegations will “only discuss ‘soft’ subjects on which agreement might be found,” the source added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down hopes for any breakthrough, saying Moscow was disappointed by the SNC's decision not to attend.

“We are not setting any final deadlines given that so much blood has been shed in Syria and that there have been so many false starts in this process,” Lavrov said.

The National Coalition has accused Russia, a main supporter of the Syrian government, of bolstering President Bashar al-Assad.

Most of Syria’s opposition in exile has made it clear that Assad must step down in any deal to end the conflict. Yet the UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in February angered the opposition when he said that Assad must not be ruled out of any political solution.

One proposal floated by mediators is the prospect of Assad staying in power for a few more years to prepare for a transition, in light of fears by the United States and Russia about the consequences of the government's sudden collapse. 

“This solution would allow all the parties to save face,” one opposition member involved in the discussions told AFP. 

The opposition member pointed to how small the likelihood of such a deal is, particularly as Washington is insisting that the agreement must be signed before the 2016 US presidential elections begin.

“Washington is ready to let Moscow hold as many meetings as it needs, but any deal must be signed…before the autumn, otherwise it will be too late.”

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