Syrian delegation consults Russia on elusive peace talks

A Syrian regime team held closed-door consultations in Moscow on Monday amid burgeoning Russian efforts to flex its diplomatic muscle and help set up elusive peace talks with the opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad's envoys entered Moscow's Stalin-era foreign ministry skyscraper just as UN chief Ban Ki-moon disclosed in Vilnius that he hoped to convene the so-called Geneva II conference in mid-December.

The latest push for peace came amid uninterrupted fighting that saw a top rebel commander die of wounds suffered in a regime air strike and continuing army advances in the flashpoint northern city of Aleppo.

The consultations in Moscow between the Syrian delegation and Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov came just days after President Vladimir Putin held his first telephone talks with Assad in more than two years.

The Kremlin said that Putin on Monday also held "detailed" discussions about Syrian peace initiatives with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Russia has been one of the Syrian regime's most important allies by providing it with backing at the United Nations and supplying its forces with heavy weapons throughout the 32-month war.

Yet Moscow has also assumed an increasingly prominent role in diplomatic negotiations after successfully averting US air strikes in September by having Assad agree to a Russia-US plan to strip him of chemical arms.

The Russian foreign ministry did not comment on the outcome of Monday's meeting with Assad's envoys and the Syrian team left the building without speaking to the press.

But a diplomatic source in Moscow said the Syrian regime delegation would continue their discussions on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Syrian opposition said Russia had also invited National Coalition president Ahmed Jarba for a three-day visit starting on Monday that would coincide with the regime officials' stay.

Russia hopes to arrange an informal meeting between the two sides that could help shape the Geneva II talks.

Jarba's adviser Munzer Aqbiq told AFP on Sunday that the opposition head could not visit Moscow on Monday due to "pre-set official commitments".

Lavrov for his part told reporters that Jarba was "still studying our invitation".

UN chief targets mid-December talks

The Geneva II conference -- meant to bring government and rebel representatives to the negotiating table for the first time -- has been delayed for months because of seemingly unreconcilable differences over the terms of the talks.

The opposition Coalition has agreed to attend the conference only if it leads to a transitional period that would see Assad's departure from power.

Both Russia and Syria's regime have rejected the demand. Moscow also want to see Syrian ally Iran join the negotiations -- a condition rejected by Western states.

But Lavrov said he and US Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed by telephone on Sunday to "continue to insist on the Syrians sitting down at the negotiating table" despite all the differences.

"And then, once they do (sit down for the talks), they can submit all the demands they want," Lavrov told the online edition of the government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily.

UN leader Ban also struck an upbeat note by confirming that "our target (for the Geneva II conference) is mid-December."

He said UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would try to set the date in a meeting with Russian and US representatives in Geneva on November 25.

Lavrov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta he and Kerry "agreed to do everything" possible to conduct the Geneva II conference next month.

Syria rebel chief killed

The accelerating diplomatic effort came as the rebels confirmed the death of the top commander of the Qatar-backed Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade.

"Abdel Qader Saleh has been martyred," the rebels said a posting on a Facebook page linked to the brigade.

Thursday's strike also killed Yussef al-Abbas -- known as Abu al-Tayyeb -- Liwa al-Tawhid's intelligence chief.

Liwa al-Tawhid responded to Thursday's attack by arresting 30 people suspected of being informers for the regime.

The brigade has some 8,000 fighters and is among a number of Islamist units that have rejected Jarba's National Coalition.


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