DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria’s regime is willing to meet the country’s opposition in Moscow to seek a way out of the nearly four-year civil war, a government official said on Saturday.
“Syria is ready to participate in a preliminary and consultative meeting in Moscow to respond to the aspirations of Syrians who are trying to find a solution to the crisis,” the foreign ministry official said, quoted by SANA state news agency.
The decision followed talks between Syria and Russia about a possible meeting, the official said.
“The Syrian Arab Republic has always been ready for dialogue with those who believe in its unity, sovereignty and freedom of choice,” the official added.
Syria’s war began as a pro-democracy revolt, but escalated into a multi-sided civil war drawing foreign extremists after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began a massive crackdown on dissent.
An estimated 200,000 people have been killed, and half the population have been forced to flee their homes.
Russia has been trying to relaunch peace talks that would include meetings between delegates of the regime and the fractured opposition.
The Russian foreign ministry declined to comment on Saturday.
But on Thursday, Moscow said that it planned to host delegations from the Syrian opposition in late January, possibly followed by a visit by regime representatives that could bring the two sides together for talks.
Assad has said he backs the efforts by his key ally.
However, the head of the main opposition National Coalition, Hadi al-Bahra, cast doubt on Russia’s efforts in remarks he made in Cairo after meeting Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
“There is no clear Russian initiative, only an (informal) invitation to meet and talk in Moscow,” Bahra told reporters.
He added that his group had not received any formal invitation to talks in Moscow.
He said, however, that the National Coalition had begun talks with “other Syrian opposition groups”, which he did not identify, in Cairo and elsewhere.
During these discussions “each side presents its views, and I don’t see wide gaps between these views,” Bahra said.
“There are small differences concerning the mechanism to reach a political solution.”
On Wednesday an opposition figure tolerated by the Syrian regime said that dissidents would meet in Cairo to discuss ways to end the war.
“Several opposition groups and individuals have been in talks for more than two months, and we have been in contact with them to try to reach a joint vision to solve the crisis,” said Munzer Khaddam of the National Democratic Body for Democratic Change.
A “national gathering” is planned in Cairo, followed by a second meeting in Moscow, Khaddam told AFP without giving a timetable.
Earlier this year the National Coalition and other opposition groups met Syrian government representatives in Geneva.
But they collapsed as the opposition demanded Assad’s resignation, while the regime insisted the main focus of the negotiation should be on fighting “terrorism”.
Since then, some opposition figures have suggested that a deal could see Assad remain in power for a limited time.
The change in tone reflects growing concern over advances by extremists who have expelled more moderate opposition rebels from large areas.