Russia, US move centre stage at Syria talks
The UN's mediator on the Syria conflict was to meet high-level Russian and US diplomats in Geneva on Thursday in hope of breathing new life into the flagging peace talks.
Lakhdar Brahimi was to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in an attempt to unblock the process.
After three days spent trading blame for the violence wracking Syria, representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition National Coalition had no scheduled meetings in Geneva Thursday.
"The presence now of the United States and Russia comes at the right time," opposition chief negotiator Hadi Bahra told AFP, saying there was a need to "straighten out the negatives."
The talks that began on January 22 were initiated by Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, a key ally of Syria.
With the process at an apparent standstill Russia seemed prepared to play a greater role, and was expected to put more pressure on the regime to move things forward.
Russia -- which has rejected a Security Council resolution that would allow the delivery of food and aid to besieged Homs and other cities -- on Wednesday proposed a counteroffer that not include the threat of sanctions on Damascus.
Gatilov met Wednesday in Geneva with the regime delegation chief, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and the opposition said it might meet the Russian diplomat Thursday.
Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, told AFP late Wednesday the Russians "intend to push these negotiations and make them succeed".
"This was the main topic in the long meeting between Mr. Muallem and Mr. Gatilov," he said, stressing though that "we believe all the pressure should be put on the other side."
Russia has also proposed a collective meeting with the UN, Washington, Moscow and the Syrian foes, but it remained unclear if the warring parties might be invited to Thursday's meeting between Brahimi, Gatilov and Sherman.
Washington and the Syrian opposition have said they could support such a joint meeting, while the regime has voiced scepticism.
The so-called Geneva II negotiations have so far done nothing to end the nearly three-year civil war which has claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
When the talks first began last month, Washington and especially Moscow remained on the sidelines, allowing the UN and Brahimi to run the show.
But while the first round was seen as a relative success for getting the sides to meet face-to-face, the current round, which began Monday and is expected to last into Saturday, has achieved little beyond a restating of positions.
In Switzerland, the opposition National Coalition laid out a transition plan, including evicting foreign fighters and a process towards elections.
But the government refused to discuss it, saying the first item on the agenda had to be the battle against what it calls rebel "terrorism".
Muqdad told AFP the opposition would "wait for a long time" for a response to their transition plan, insisting that discussing politics before terrorism was a "recipe for disaster and failure."
© 2014 AFP