Talks between rival sides in the Syrian war began in Moscow on Monday but the absence of key opposition groups meant there was little hope of progress in resolving the conflict.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, is heading the government delegation for the meetings with members of the domestic “tolerated” opposition, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC).
But the main Western-backed exiled Syrian opposition National Coalition stayed away, and another leading domestic opposition activist remains under a travel ban from Damascus.
The discussions, which run until April 9, are expected to focus on humanitarian issues and plans for future talks, while also serving as a way for Russia, a main backer of the Syrian regime, to build its profile as a potential mediator in the conflict.
A source in the Syrian government delegation told AFP that the opposition would spend Monday and Tuesday meeting with Russian mediators before the two sides sit down together Wednesday.
“The main idea this time is to agree on a precise agenda for further negotiations,” the source told AFP.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down hopes for any breakthrough saying Moscow was disappointed by the decision of National Coalition not to attend.
“We are not setting any final deadlines given that so much blood has been shed in Syria and that there have been so many false starts in this process,” Lavrov said.
The talks follow a similar round of meetings between the government and officially tolerated opposition in Moscow in late January that failed to make any concrete progress towards resolving the deep-rooted conflict.
The sit down is the first since some of the key international players in the crisis thrashed out an outline deal over Iran’s nuclear programme and US Secretary of State John Kerry refused to rule out speaking to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
– ‘Soft’ subjects –
But despite the seemingly positive noises over the conflict there seemed little prospect of any breakthrough at the Moscow talks.
Ahead of the meeting a source close to Syrian government delegation told AFP that the delegations “will only discuss ‘soft’ subjects on which agreement might be found.”
“You cannot say that these consultations will have any major results,” Russian Middle East expert Boris Dolgov told AFP.
“It is just one step, albeit important, on the path towards stopping the crisis in Syria.”
Dolgov said that by hosting the talks Moscow was looking to boost its standing as a potential mediator while also seeking to curb the threat that radical groups such as Islamic State pose to its national security.
The opposition National Coalition, however, accusing Russia of seeking to use the talks to bolster Assad, has declined to attend, and finds itself increasingly sidelined by powerful regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Another opposition figure Louay Hussein, who heads the Building the Syrian State party, told AFP that Damascus barred him from attending the meeting by refusing to lift a travel ban imposed following his release on bail in February after three months in jail.
Most of Syria’s opposition in exile has made it clear that Assad must step down in any deal to end the conflict that began with demonstrations against his rule in March 2011.
An Arab diplomat following the developments told AFP that one proposal now being floated would see Assad stay in power for two or three more years to prepare a transition, particularly given Russian and US fears about the consequences if his regime collapsed suddenly.
“This solution would allow all the parties to save face,” one opposition member involved in the discussions said.
The window for any such agreement is fairly small, with Washington reportedly insisting that any deal be signed before campaigning for the 2016 presidential election begins in earnest in the autumn.
“Washington is ready to let Moscow hold as many meetings as it needs, but any deal must be signed… before the autumn, otherwise it will be too late,” the opposition member said.