US and Russia to discuss Syrian opposition bloc for peace talks

January 25th talks with government may be postponed if no agreement reached

A Free Syrian Army fighter places a shell before firing it towards Islamic State fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria.  Aleppo’s eastern quarters are held by insurgents while Isis has a presence in the countryside east and south of the city.   Photograph: Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter places a shell before firing it towards Islamic State fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria. Aleppo’s eastern quarters are held by insurgents while Isis has a presence in the countryside east and south of the city. Photograph: Reuters

 

US secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in Zurich on Wednesday to try to settle differences between Syrian opposition groups over who will attend the meeting between the government and opposition scheduled for January 25th.

Invitations have not yet been issued by UN mediator Staffan de Mistura, risking postponement if no agreement is reached.

Saudi Arabia insists politicians and fighters chosen in Riyadh should form the sole opposition team while Russia supports the demand for independent representation of the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance based in Syria’s northern Hasakeh province.

Along the Syrian-Turkish border the latter group has had the most success in rolling back Islamic State, also known as Isis, and is expected by the US and its allies to play a major role in an offensive against the de-factor Isis capital of Raqqa.

The Damascus-based Syrian opposition has been ignored, the head of one group told The Irish Times on the phone from the Syrian capital.

The Syrian government has called for broad opposition representation and has said it would not attend if figures from factions Damascus considers “terrorist” are included in the Saudi-formed delegation, notably the Saudi-patronised Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which cooperates with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

Roadmap

The roadmap calls for negotiations between the government and opposition on a ceasefire excluding Isis and Nusra and the formation of an interim authority which will draft a new constitution and oversee elections by August 2017.

The US and Russia are under increasing pressure to get the sides talking. UN expert Hilal Ever on Tuesday warned 400,000 civilians trapped in 15 besieged areas are in desperate need of aid and called for immediate ceasefires to allow aid to reach everyone in Syria.

Some 200,000 are besieged by Isis, 12,000 by other insurgents, and 180,000 by government forces.

Fresh offensive

Iraq

Government forces, bolstered by Russian air cover, have driven insurgents from Latakia province in the northwest and the strategic town of Shaikh Meskine in the south near Deraa and have restored supply lines to western sectors of Aleppo city, held by Damascus.

Aleppo’s eastern quarters are held by insurgents while Isis has a presence in the countryside east and south of the city.

Commentators predict Damascus could begin the long-awaited offensive to oust insurgents from Aleppo city, the key prize in the battle for Syria. This would greatly strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations at the expense of the Saudi-sponsored opposition.