Syrian government agrees to Russian peace talks

A Syrian official was quoted saying the government was ready for preliminary peace talks, set to be hosted by Russia next month. It is unclear whether any of the country's opposition groups are willing to attend the talks.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Children covered with dust walk at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus December 27.

Syrian state-run TV said Saturday that the government is prepared to take part in peace talks hosted by Russia next month, but the unnamed foreign ministry official it cited suggested the scope of the negotiations would be limited to "preliminary" talks meant to pave the way for a conference held in Syria itself.

The official was quoted as saying the government was "ready to participate in preparatory, advisory meetings in Moscow" that would "answer the aspirations of Syrians to find an exit from the crisis."

Russia's Foreign Ministry had said Thursday that it hoped to host peace talks after Jan. 20 between the Syrian government and its fractured opposition. The nearly four-year conflict has claimed over 200,000 lives, displaced a third of Syria's population, and nurtured an extremist group, the Islamic State, which now rules over vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Russia is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and it is unclear whether any of the country's opposition groups are willing to attend the talks.

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition has maintained that any negotiated settlement must include the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, a demand rejected by Assad's government.

Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, has said that the first stage of talks would include members of both the government-tolerated internal opposition and opposition groups based abroad. In the next stage, they would be joined by Syrian government representatives.

But the Syrian foreign ministry official quoted on state-run television suggested that the Moscow talks were only meant to pave the way for a "dialogue conference" to be held in Syria.

"The preliminary, consultative meetings in Moscow are aimed at (finding) agreement on convening a dialogue conference between the Syrians themselves, without any foreign intervention," the official said.

It is unclear whether Syria's fractured opposition leaders in exile, or armed rebels on the ground, would attend a conference hosted in a government-controlled area of the country.

Hadid reported from Beirut.

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