Russia's Lavrov Meets With UN Envoy Over Syrian Peace Talks

  • Lavrov sees De Mistura amid optimism after U.S.-Russia talks
  • Assad still sticking to stance on `national unity government'

Russia’s top diplomat met the United Nations official in charge of the Syria peace talks as world powers look to advance the negotiations, held up in part by the Kremlin’s disagreement with the U.S. over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday in Moscow, with about a week to go until the next round of talks in Geneva. De Mistura requested the meeting to discuss preparations, his office said by e-mail.

The UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland mark the most serious effort yet to end the war that’s killed more than a quarter of a million people. The conflict has sparked a refugee crisis in Europe and given Islamic State a safe haven from which to expand across the region and plot terror attacks such as last month’s bombings in Brussels, the worst in Belgium’s history. The U.S. and Russia in February brokered a partial cease-fire that’s largely holding. Last month, they set an August deadline for a deal to end Syria’s five-year war.

At the meeting with Lavrov, de Mistura lauded efforts by Russia and the U.S. to maintain momentum in the talks and said he will go to Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh before the next round. He added that the three aspects of the peace settlement -- the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian aid, and a political transition -- “need to be nurtured constantly to keep them in the right direction.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said following a March 24 Kremlin meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that there was “cautious optimism” after the two sides agreed on ideas for a peace settlement that they intended to propose to the Syrian government and the opposition.

Assad’s Stance

Assad showed no sign of willingness to compromise in an interview with Russia’s RIA Novosti news service, published last week. He said that he didn’t support a transitional body to take over running the country, as called for by major powers. Instead, Assad urged the formation of a national unity government including members of the opposition to draft a new constitution.

While the U.S. has softened its demands for the immediate ouster of Assad, it says he can’t be part of Syria’s political future. The opposition continues to demand that the Syrian leader step down at the start of the transitional phase and sees the proposal for a national unity government as a way to keep the president in power.

Russia, the U.S. and other key world and regional players endorsed a road-map in November that would establish a transitional ruling body with full executive authority in Syria of government and opposition members within six months. This would lead to internationally supervised elections under a new constitution a year later.

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