Russia Urges U.S. to Prod Syria Opposition Toward Compromise

  • U.S. should use its influence in Geneva talks, envoy says
  • Kerry's Moscow visit next week said to come at important time

A top Russian diplomat called on the U.S. to prod Syria’s main opposition group to show a willingness to compromise at peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“The U.S. has influence, on the opposition and on regional powers -- Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- which back them,” Alexei Borodavkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva, who represents his country at the Syria negotiations, said in an interview. “We would like them to use this influence.”

President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced a surprise pullout of most Russian forces from Syria in a move he said was aimed at supporting the peace process. A prominent Russian lawmaker, Alexander Babakov, said it was a signal to Assad to be more constructive in negotiations as the UN-backed peace talks resumed in Geneva.

Russia, whose military intervention last year in support of Assad turned the tide in Syria’s five-year civil war, last month worked with the U.S. in brokering a partial cease-fire that is largely holding. That helped kick-start the stalled talks to end a conflict that has killed a quarter-million people, sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and allowed Islamic State a foothold.

U.S. Cooperation

“We already have demonstrated together with the Americans how we can be effective if we work together,” Borodavkin said in the interview Thursday. A visit next week to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who may meet Putin as well as his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov, is an “important” opportunity to use the current positive developments to move the political process forward, the diplomat said.

While the U.S. has said it welcomes Russia’s pullback, officials have questioned the extent of the withdrawal. Kerry said this week that he understood Russia plans to remove “half of its forces immediately and perhaps more.”

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday that Russia’s ongoing military presence in Syria -- which includes a naval and an air base -- doesn’t have to be “a negative thing” for the future of Syria if it’s directed against Islamic State and Russia continues to play “a very helpful role” toward a political solution.

Air Strikes

The Russian air force remaining in Syria is pursuing strikes against Islamic State and the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, making 20 to 25 sorties a day, senior Defense Ministry official Sergei Rudskoy said at a briefing in Moscow on Friday. Russian military aircraft are helping government forces to advance on Palmyra, a UNESCO-listed historic city seized by Islamic State last May, he said.

Syrian authorities have indicated that they will accept only a limited role for the opposition in a national unity government, and that discussing the possibility of Assad stepping down is a “red line.” The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition bloc, insists that the president must leave office at the start of a transitional period.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he sees a “new momentum” toward a deal on a political transition in Syria even if the gap between the two sides remains wide. A road map approved by world powers in November aims for an agreement on a transitional government within half a year, followed by elections under a new constitution within an additional 12 months. The timetable starts from March 14, the effective beginning of the negotiations, according to the UN.

‘Avoid Ultimatums’

The HNC must enter into serious negotiations to agree on the powers and composition of the transitional governing body, said Borodavkin.

“We are sure that the Syrian government delegation arrived in Geneva with strict instructions to hold negotiations with the goal of reaching a positive result,” the Russian envoy said. “But the HNC continues to repeat its demand divorced from reality that ‘Assad must go’. This opposition group should avoid ultimatums and show more flexibility.”

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said that proposals submitted to de Mistura by his government’s delegation provide a basis for a political solution.

“We believe that the adoption of these principles that we have called for will lead into serious intra-Syrian dialogue to help build the future of our country,” Jaafari told reporters after meeting the UN envoy on Friday.

In contrast, HNC chief spokesman Salem al-Muslet said the refusal of the Assad side to enter into direct talks with the opposition grouping proved its lack of commitment to a negotiated settlement.

“The truth is that there is one side which is serious about solving the Syrians’ problem and that side is the opposition, the HNC,” he said in an interview with Reuters distributed to other media on Friday. “We don’t see seriousness in the other side, we see procrastination; it refuses direct talks, it refuses to accept anything the opposition proposes.”

Russia will do “everything it can” to ensure the political process happens on schedule, Borodavkin said, calling for opposition groups that are less hostile to Assad to negotiate in a common delegation alongside the HNC, an idea it rejects.

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