Syrian delegation in Moscow to prepare for Geneva peace talks

Conference must be carefully orchestrated to draw sides into process, says source

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad  leaves the headquarters of the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Grigory Dukor

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad leaves the headquarters of the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Grigory Dukor

Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 01:00

Syrian and Russian envoys yesterday met in Moscow to prepare for the repeatedly delayed Geneva conference to end the conflict in Syria, as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the gathering would take place in mid-December.

A Syrian source said the conference must be carefully orchestrated by its Russian and US sponsors to draw the sides into a process that provides for a transitional authority and winds down the war.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban conferred with Russian deputy foreign ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov four days after Russian president Vladimir Putin conversed with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and hours after Mr Putin had “detailed” talks with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

The Syrian team will continue talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov today while Mr Bogdanov will begin discussions with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir- Abdollahian.

Mr Lavrov had also invited expatriate opposition National Coalition head Ahmad Jarba to Moscow with the aim of holding informal discussions with the government envoys ahead of Geneva. Mr Jarba declined.

Assad’s removal
The coalition says it would attend the Geneva conference only if it would lead to Dr Assad’s removal from power, a proposition the government rejects. Mr Lavrov said he and US secretary of state John Kerry “insist” that the Syrians must sit down and negotiate despite their differences.

However, Moscow wants Tehran to attend the talks, while the US does not.Russia and Iran have been Dr Assad’s staunchest allies since unrest erupted in March 2011.

Also in Moscow, Syrian ambassador to Russia Riad Haddad said the lack of funding and the threat posed by armed groups to transporting Syria’s chemical weapons stocks were “creating hindrances to satisfying terms of the agreement” for the destruction of the arsenal.

A third problem is the failure of the UN to find a country to host the process. Norway, Belgium and Albania have refused.

Regime advance
On the battlefield, government forces continue to advance into rebel-held suburbs of the capital and to press opposition forces occupying portions of Aleppo. Last week the main opposition contingent there sustained major losses when an air strike killed Abdul Saleh Qader, senior commander of the fundamentalist Tawhid Brigade, as well its intelligence chief, Youssef al-Abbas.

Syrian forces have also launched an offensive in the Qalamoun mountains near the border with Lebanon in an effort to flush out rebel and fundamentalist fighters and cut their supply lines.

At least 31 government troops, said to include three generals and a brigadier, were killed when rebel Free Syrian Army bombs exploded at a military vehicle base at Harasta, northeast of Damascus.