Iran, Syria FMs meet Lavrov in Moscow amid US absence

'Strong Tehran-Moscow-Damascus axis emerging'

Russia launched a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on Thursday as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in the Russian capital late Wednesday on the same jet as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
They were due to meet their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for trilateral talks, a day after meetings with President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian IRNA news agency reported.
Zarif will also meet Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday to discuss curbs on its nuclear programme and the possible purchase of missiles that could fend off punitive strikes by arch-foe Israel.
The talks between the Damascus regime and its two main allies come four days after a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Paris of mainly Western and Gulf nations backing the rebels.
World powers are seeking to bring the warring parties together for their first direct discussions at the so-called Geneva II peace talks beginning on January 22.
"There is a strong Tehran-Moscow-Damascus axis emerging," said Russian PIR Centre research institute analyst Andrei Baklitsky.
"Russia and Iran support Assad and a political settlement to the conflict -- and this is the only thing working right now," said the analyst.
"The West has no other alternative."
Millions have been displaced and at least 130,000 killed in nearly three years. Some 70 nations gathered in Kuwait Wednesday raised $2.4 billion for what aid organisations describe as the world's worst unfolding humanitarian disaster.
Putin has been on the ascendance ever since managing to avert seemingly inevitable US strikes against Russia's closest Middle East ally in September by forcing Assad to renounce his chemical arms.
Now Moscow wants to convince Washington to accept Tehran's presence at the Geneva conference in order to bolster its efforts to keep Assad in power and curb the future influence of his foes.
"All international and regional forces that influence the course of events in Syria should take part (in Geneva II). These include Iran," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement issued in advance of Zarif's visit.
But Moscow also noted that the Syria meetings should be "based on the provisions of the (June 2012) Geneva Communique" -- a document Iran rejected because it paved the way for a transitional government that could potentially replace Assad.
The United States wants Iran to sign up to the accord before it formally joins talks that are due to kick off in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux on January 22 before moving two days later to Geneva.
Russian missile purchases
Analysts said Moscow and Tehran are now trying to draw up their own post-war plan that is based on Washington's growing anxiety about the presence of Al-Qaeda sympathisers in rebel ranks.
"A large part of these negotiations are focused on what happens after Geneva II," said Alexander Konovalov of Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessment.
The Kremlin appears to hold strong leverage over the Islamic republic because of Iran's desire to purchase Russian missiles and other high-tech arms.
This can help Moscow wrest concessions sought by the West over Tehran's support for Hezbollah forces backing up Assad from Lebanon as well as its contested nuclear drive.
Iran has agreed to limit uranium enrichment and allow inspections of its nuclear sites starting on January 20 in exchange for about $7 billion in sanctions relief.
Moscow had bowed to US and Israeli pressure aborting an $800-million deal to supply Tehran with an S-300 surface-to-air missile system that would have imperilled any Israeli sorties aimed at Iranian nuclear sites.
But Iran's Fars news agency said a new delegation from Tehran due shortly in Moscow will try and purchase missiles that could be worth even more money and include the more powerful Antey-2500 system.
"Russia is not interested in seeing a large nuclear state with unpredictable politics emerge near its border," said Konovalov.
"But neither does it want to ruin relations with Iran. So we can sell arms to Iran. But we will want something in return."
Russia's Kommersant daily reported Thursday that talks with Zarif will also include a discussion of Russia's possible substantial oil purchases from Iran.
A Russian government source told the paper that Moscow is free sign such a deal even before ease of sanction pressure since it "never agreed to western sanctions."