Russia Urges Syria to Respond to Opposition’s Talks Offer

Russia urged President Bashar al-Assad to respond to an offer of dialogue by his opponents as it steps up diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the almost two-year conflict in Syria.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will receive his Syrian counterpart Walid Al-Muallem in Moscow next week, said after talks today with top Arab officials that the warring sides must appoint representatives for peace negotiations.

“It’s important now that the Syrian opposition’s willingness for dialogue is met by the government’s confirmation that it is ready for dialogue,” Lavrov told reporters in the Russian capital. “Words must be accompanied by action.”

Russia, which has Soviet-era ties with Syria, is seeking a leading role as a mediator. Syrian opposition head Moaz al-Khatib, who reached out to the two main Syrian allies by holding talks with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich this month, is due to travel to Moscow in early March, Lavrov said. Russia is willing to host peace talks, he added.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi, who met Lavrov today along with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, said all sides agreed to seek a political solution to the civil war. Russia’s “strong ties” with Syria should be used to convince Assad to negotiate a settlement, El-Arabi said.

Assad has been fighting an insurgency that has left almost 70,000 people dead, according to the United Nations. The mainly Sunni Syrian opposition, which had refused to negotiate with Assad’s Alawite-led government, is now considering dialogue with the authorities. The government indicated last week that it’s ready to meet with al-Khatib, who has called for talks to end the violence.

Russia has “cautious optimism” about the possibility of Syrian peace talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said yesterday.

“We hope the opposition and the government will find a way to sit down at the negotiating table,” Gatilov told reporters in Moscow. “A consolidated position of outside powers” is among the conditions needed for that to happen.

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