Syria opposition weighs Russian peace talks invite
DAMASCUS - Syria's main opposition group signalled it would announce Friday whether it will join next week's "peace congress" in Russia, as the UN held separate talks on finding a way out of the country's brutal conflict.
Regime officials and the main opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) were both in Vienna for two days of talks that began Thursday, with Western powers worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with its own diplomatic push.
As with eight rounds of previous UN talks in Geneva, there was no sign of the opposition and regime even sitting down at the same table, with the warring sides instead meeting separately with United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
And the talks were marked by anger from the regime over a leaked set of political proposals from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain and France that would involve strengthening the role of Syria's prime minister -- at the expense of President Bashar al-Assad's authority.
Top government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters it was "tantamount to a black comedy" that these countries were seeking to shape Syria's political future, as an Arabic version of the document circulated online.
"All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people," he said of the five nations, blasting the US as the country "that created ISIS (the Islamic State group)" and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but a "beacon of freedom in the east".
SNC spokesman Yahya al-Aridi, arriving earlier for the talks at the UN's offices in the Austrian capital, said the opposition's goal was "to bring Syria back to life, safe for our people to come home".
As for whether the main opposition will attend Tuesday's closely-watched talks in Sochi -- a prospect dozens of rebel factions have already rejected -- he suggested an announcement would come later Friday.
"We will tell you today, hopefully," he said. He made no comment as he and other opposition officials left the UN five hours later.
Russia, which has helped turn the Syrian war in favour of its ally Assad, has invited 1,600 people to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to begin hammering out a new constitution for post-war Syria.
The meeting is also backed by Iran and Turkey, two key players in the complex and devastating near seven-year-old conflict, but viewed with unease by the opposition and Western countries.
They fear it will sideline the UN track and carve out a settlement in favour of Assad.
Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House think-tank, stopped short of saying Russia was actively trying to sabotage the UN peace process.
But he said that Moscow has huge interests in making sure that any breakthrough comes at Sochi instead.
"They want to present themselves as peace brokers, not only in Syria but in the Middle East in general, a role traditionally carried out by the Americans," Haid said.
"For the Russians to take this role, they have to do what the Americans were not able to do" -- find a solution in Syria, he said.
- Suspicions run high -
Previous UN-backed attempts have hit a roadblock over the question of Assad's future, with the regime refusing to meet the opposition face-to-face until it drops demands that he steps down.
Putting this thorny issue to one side for now, de Mistura has tried to talk to the two sides about drawing up a new constitution -- just like the Russians aim to do in Sochi next week.
The talks in Vienna come as Turkey launched a ground operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to expand.
Operation Olive Branch has worried Turkey's Western NATO allies, who have backed the Kurdish YPG militia in their fight against Islamic State group jihadists.