Syria opposition chief turns to Russia for help on Assad
Syria's opposition leader met Russia's top diplomat on Tuesday in a bid to persuade Moscow to push its ally Damascus to agree to a transitional government for the war-scarred nation.
Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after an inconclusive 10-day peace conference in Geneva ended on Friday without a commitment from Damascus to attend a new round of negotiations set for February 10.
Washington, a firm backer of the Syrian opposition, and Moscow had pushed the rival sides into direct talks in a bid to calm nearly three years of fighting that has claimed more than 135,000 lives.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's delegation and the opposition made no progress in clinching local ceasefires or permission for humanitarian corridors to some of the country's more devastated cities such as Homs.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov indicated on Tuesday that Moscow expected Assad to state firmly his delegation's intentions to resume the Geneva II peace talks next week.
"We have no doubt Damascus will issue orders for the government delegation to continue the negotiations in Geneva," Gatilov said at the start of Jarba's talks with Lavrov.
Jarba stressed that the umbrella opposition group was especially concerned with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's refusal in Geneva to hold any discussion about a transitional government that could pave the way for Assad's removal from power.
He told reporters after Tuesday's meeting that Lavrov treated the opposition's stance on Assad with "understanding".
"We told the Russian leaders that we are open to any solutions that ensure Syria's future -- a future that is free of Assad and his war criminals," Jarba said.
"I think that we have entered a new stage of relations with Russia," the opposition leader added.
"We now have good relations... that I hope will continue to develop further."
But Lavrov himself gave no sign that Moscow intended to yield to Jarba's foreign-based opposition alliance and step up its pressure on the regime.
Russia's top diplomat simply told Jarba in opening comments available to reporters that "today's conversation will be very, very useful in helping clarify approaches that could help advance the Geneva process."
The tense talks came against the backdrop of a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of renewed barrel bomb attacks by Syrian army helicopters on the major northern city of Aleppo.
The British-based monitor said similar raids had killed 30 people on Monday and 85 on Saturday -- the day after the Geneva meeting broke up.
The Aleppo Media Centre said Tuesday's strikes had killed an undisclosed number of children at a school in the former Syrian commercial capital's Masakan Hanano neighbourhood. But monitors said they were unable to immediately confirm the number of casualties from the latest violence.
A compromise on Iran?
Jarba earlier said Lavrov had assured him that the Kremlin's position on Assad's role was not set in stone.
But Moscow has sided with its traditional Middle East ally in public and said that Assad's departure from power should not be a precondition for political change.
The Kremlin has also bitterly fought with the opposition's Western and Arab allies over the makeup of the negotiating teams.
Lavrov has repeatedly argued that the talks should be joined by Iran -- a condition rejected by the rebels because of the Islamic republic's close connections to the Assad regime.
But a Russian diplomatic source told Moscow's Kommersant daily that Washington had proposed a compromise that would allow Iran along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- two ardent foes of Assad -- to join a separate set of negotiations that would be conducted alongside the Geneva talks.
Kommersant said that US Secretary of State John Kerry had forwarded the proposal to Lavrov during their talks on the sidelines of the weekend Munich Security Conference.
"The Russian side, according to Kommersant sources, broadly approved this idea," the newspaper wrote.