Last updated: 19 November, 2013

Russia’s Lavrov meets Assad envoys

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged a visiting Syrian regime delegation on Tuesday to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the multitude of civilians left destitute by war.

Lavrov met Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad for talks aimed at preparing Russia’s main Middle East ally for a peace conference in Geneva, which world diplomats hope to convene mid-December.

Muqdad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s adviser Buthaina Shaaban also met in Moscow with a top team from Iran, the Damascus regime’s most important regional backer. Russia wants to see Tehran represented at the so-called Geneva II conference.

Lavrov told Muqdad that international humanitarian aid groups have asked Moscow to pressure Damascus into providing better access to stranded civilians.

“We call on you to do more to assist in the quickest-possible provision of humanitarian assistance to the needy, without bureaucratic procedures,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying.

The 32-month conflict has claimed more than 120,000 lives and seen an estimated 2.2 million Syrians flee their homeland.

The fighting is also believed to have displaced millions of people inside the war-ravaged country and left masses in dire need of medical care.

Russia has prided itself for being able to win the Syrian government’s assurance that it will attend the Geneva conference and has blamed the West for failing to secure a similar guarantee from the badly divided Syrian opposition.

Muqdad confirmed on Tuesday that Assad’s envoys would travel to Geneva as long as the talks’ main focus was not on the current regime’s ouster but on ways of stopping the war.

“We completely agree with your assessment about preparations for Geneva,” Muqdad told Lavrov. “They should be conducted without preconditions.”

Lavrov said entering the talks with Muqdad that he saw signs of “more realism” from the opposition Syrian National Coalition umbrella group about the Geneva meeting.

The Coalition has previously said it will only attend Geneva II if the conference assured Assad’s immediate removal from power.

Russia’s top diplomat added that Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba would probably arrive in Moscow for negotiations once Assad’s delegation departs.

The timing is a blow to Lavrov’s hopes of setting up direct talks between the two sides in Russia — a meeting that would have highlighted Moscow’s growing role as peacemaker in the conflict.

Iran vows ‘support for Syria’

The Syrian team on Tuesday also won an assurance from Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of Tehran’s continued support for the regime.

“Our support for Syria, which is facing a revolt, will continue,” Interfax quoted the Iranian diplomat as saying.

“We will continue providing our support in the strongest manner possible.”

The idea of Iran joining the Geneva conference has been effectively rejected by Washington because of the Islamic republic’s links to the Lebanese-based Hezbollah movement now fighting alongside Assad’s troops.

Amir-Abdollahian denied that Iran was providing direct military assistance to the Syrian government despite its vehement opposition to the various Sunni groups fighting Assad.

But Russia argues that Iran’s key role in the conflict makes its presence vital to the successful outcome of any peace talks.

“It is crucially important that the opening of the conference… is attended by all states that in one way or another affect the development of the situation in Syria,” Lavrov said.

Russia’s top diplomat added that he would address Iran’s participation and other hurdles on the way to the Geneva II conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry “in the coming days”.

He disclosed no further details but both diplomats could potentially join a new round of negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme that begins in Geneva on Wednesday.