Russia talks with Syrian opposition

AFP and Reuters, BERLIN and MUNICH, Germany

Mon, Feb 04, 2013 - Page 1

Ground-breaking talks between the Russian foreign minister and the Syrian opposition leader have bolstered a global push to narrow sharp differences over how to end the conflict in Syria.

Moscow said on Saturday it wanted to keep in regular contact with the Syrian opposition, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib met for the first time.

“I reminded Khatib that after the creation of the coalition and the appointment of their leader, we immediately demonstrated our interest in maintaining regular contact,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying after the meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“We will make that happen,” he added.

Lavrov had earlier on Saturday held talks with US Vice President Joe Biden and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi amid strong disagreement between Moscow and Washington about ways to end the 22-month Syria conflict, which according to the UN has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

Al-Khatib, who became the head of the coalition late last year, reiterated on the opening day of the Munich talks on Friday an earlier surprise announcement that his group is ready for dialogue with the Damascus regime — subject to conditions including the release of 160,000 detainees.

Lavrov said Moscow welcomed the initiative, adding: “If we take into account the fact that the coalition was founded on a refusal to engage in a dialogue with the regime, it’s a very important step.”

Biden, in his meeting with Lavrov, called on Washington and Moscow to put aside “serious differences” and stressed the need for US-Russian cooperation, including over Syria, the White House said.

Moscow’s engagement with the Syrian opposition comes just days after Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev took the rare step of criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Assad made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” in not reaching out more quickly to the Syrian opposition “which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him,” Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying on Jan. 27.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday his talks with the Syrian opposition leader in Munich one day earlier could contribute to finding a solution to the war in Syria.

Salehi said al-Khatib’s comments to him, in their talks late on Saturday, that he would be willing to talk with representatives of the Syrian government if prisoners were released represented “a good step forward.”

In other developments, outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak implicitly confirmed yesterday an Israeli air strike on a military site in Syria.

Barak refrained from a direct confirmation, but told the Munich Security Conference that it was “another proof that when we say something we mean it.”