Syrian opposition refuses Moscow talks

By Laura Mills

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 8 2013 6:21 a.m. MST

This image made from citizen journalist video posted by the Shaam News Network, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows smoke from shelling in Deir al-Zour, Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Syria's 23 million people belong to a startling patchwork of different religious groups, and the three-year conflict has taken increasingly sectarian overtones in the past year.

Shaam News Network, Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria's main Western-backed opposition group has refused to participate in talks in Moscow with Syrian government organizations on resolving the country's humanitarian crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry and opposition figures said Friday.

Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Syrian National Coalition is "blocking and refusing to participate" in the talks. Russian officials had hoped the talks would bolster prospects for a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva.

The coalition has demanded guarantees, including that President Bashar Assad would step down in any transitional Syrian government, as a condition for going to a conference in Geneva.

But Damascus has said Assad will stay in his post at least until his terms ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.

Friday's rejection of Moscow talks by Syria's opposition came shortly after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Thursday that the opposition had "responded positively" to a proposal for such talks.

Kamal Labwani, a member of the coalition, told The Associated Press Friday that the group refused to go to Moscow because "Russia is not a fair mediator and is part of the conflict." He was referring to Moscow's support to the Syrian government since the crisis began in March 2011.

"Russia can become a fair mediator when it orders Assad to leave Syria," Labwani said by telephone from Paris. "When it (Russia) wants to support the criminal, it will lose."

The coalition has long called on the international community to help secure aid to civilians, particularly in rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government forces.

Lukashevich, the Russian ministry spokesman, said the Moscow initiative had "received an active and positive response among a number of opposition group leaders."

"Unfortunately, the Syrian National Opposition and individual leaders who consider it a counterproductive ploy are blocking it and refusing to participate," he said.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that the timeline for having a peace conference in Geneva is failing, "primarily because representatives of the opposition aren't ready to take part without preconditions." He spoke to reporters after meeting Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"This intransigence and these demands are being asserted by the National Coalition, which claims to be the only representative of the Syrian people, but which doesn't represent even a majority of the opposition groups that are opposing Assad's regime," Lavrov said.

In Syria, activists said Syrian troops launched Friday a major offensive to recapture the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo.

The Aleppo Media Center and the Britain-based Syrian observatory for Human Rights said troops are attacking the base known as "Brigade 80" whose main job was to protect the Aleppo International Airport, which has been closed due to fighting for almost a year.

Rebels captured "Brigade 80" in February and now government troops are trying to get it back.

The government advance comes a week after government troops captured the strategic town of Safira, southeast of the Aleppo airport, after weeks of fighting.

Even though a Moscow meeting would have focused on the Syrian humanitarian crisis alone, it would have represented a breakthrough, with opposition and representatives of governmental groups sitting down at the same table.

Syria's civil war has touched off a humanitarian catastrophe across the region. More than 2 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, while the U.N. said this week that more than 9 million Syrians — out of the country's pre-war population of 23 million — are in need of humanitarian assistance.

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Mills reported from Moscow.

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