International talks in Geneva aimed at ending the Syrian civil war will probably unfold in several rounds of direct negotiations between both sides of the conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Jan. 22 starting date of the meetings marks “not the end but the beginning” of the Geneva II peace effort, Lavrov said in Moscow today at a joint briefing with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Speaking a day before he hosts Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, Lavrov denied that the countries were preparing a separate “trilateral project” to tackle the Syrian crisis.
The opposing sides of the Syrian war should be “encouraged to find a mutual agreement,” Lavrov said, adding that their direct talks in Geneva will be mediated by United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. “No one knows how much time will be needed.”
The war in Syria has dragged on for nearly three years after peaceful demonstrations that started in March 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad’s government escalated into a sectarian conflict. The crisis has spilled into Iraq and Jordan, threatening regional stability.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said the war has left more than 130,000 dead, 8 million displaced, and 2 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
The U.S. backed away in September from proposed military strikes against Assad, and instead joined Russia in reaching an accord for his government to destroy chemical weapons. The same two countries have taken the lead in pushing the peace talks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Zarif later today, Lavrov said.
Russia has sought to broaden the planned political talks in Switzerland to include Iran, which has backed Assad throughout the uprising. Iran will “inevitably” take part in any resolution of the Syrian conflict, Lavrov said. The U.S. and rebel groups have opposed Iran’s participation in the peace conference.
“The success of Geneva II can only be ensured with good will shown by all, which requires broadening the representative character” of the participants, Lavrov said. Russia is “concerned” by efforts to “narrow the range of opposition forces” in Geneva, he said.
Iranian authorities would agree to join the talks if UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon extends an invitation without preconditions, Zarif said.