Syrian opposition figures and representatives of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began talks in Moscow Wednesday but there was little hope that they would make a breakthrough in ending the country’s brutal war.
The talks between opposition groups tolerated by Damascus and a Syrian delegation led by ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari came as Kurdish forces battled the Islamic State group around Kobane, after expelling them from the strategic town on the Turkish border.
The rise of Islamic State — which was threatening Wednesday to execute a Japanese hostage and a captured Jordanian airforce pilot — has changed the West’s approach to Syria and spurred hope that the warring sides might find common ground in the face of a mutual foe.
But expectations are low for the Moscow-sponsored talks — aimed at restarting long-stalled peace negotiations to wind down the nearly four-year civil war — as the main opposition group, the exiled National Coalition, has refused to attend.
The leading internationally-recognised opponents of Assad have stayed away, arguing that Russia — Assad’s most powerful remaining ally — cannot be an honest broker.
The Syrian government delegation joined the closed-door Moscow talks after Assad’s opponents held a series of meetings on Monday and Tuesday to thrash out a common platform.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — who has said that the Moscow encounter should lay the groundwork for future UN-mediated talks — was set to meet the Syrian delegations later in the day.
Two previous rounds of talks in Geneva ended without success.
– ‘Start of long process’ –
An opposition source at the meeting told AFP that the 32 opposition representatives attending were putting forward a “ten-point list” aimed at defusing a civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives since 2011.
Key priorities include calls to end bombing campaigns, freeing political prisoners, and establishing “mechanisms for the delivery of humanitarian aid”.
The source said that the opposition figures would not immediately insist on establishing a transitional government to ease Assad from power.
“These first discussions are only the start of a long process,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity over fears of derailing the sensitive encounter.
– IS hostage deadline –
Assad himself has played down expectations for the meeting, calling into doubt the legitimacy of some of the opposition involved.
The United States has given its backing to the talks in Moscow amid signs that Washington may be recalibrating its Syria policy to focus on the Islamic State jihadist group, which has taken control of swaths of Iraq and Syria, rather than Assad’s exit.
On the ground in Syria, a 24-hour deadline was ticking down on a threat by IS militants to kill both a Japanese hostage and a Jordanian pilot unless Amman releases a female bomber.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slammed the chilling video threat to murder freelance journalist Kenji Goto and airman Maaz al-Kassasbeh as “utterly despicable”.
Tokyo has appealed for Jordan’s help after an earlier video emerged at the weekend in which the extremist group announced it had murdered another Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa, a self-employed contractor kidnapped in August.
The father of the Jordanian pilot Kassasbeh has urged the authorities in Amman to save his son “at any price”.
The latest execution threat from IS — which has also beheaded two US reporters, an American aid worker and two British aid workers — arrived as Kurdish forces fought jihadi fighters around the key border town of Kobane on Tuesday.
The town’s recent recapture marked a symbolic and strategic blow against IS, but officials warn massive reconstruction is needed and the fight would continue for the surrounding villages.
Further highlighting the overspill from the conflict in Syria, Israel on Wednesday said it had carried out overnight raids on Syrian military targets after accusing Damascus of launching rocket strikes at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.