Washington is "not serious about fighting terrorism," Iran's deputy foreign minister has said, in a sharply worded criticism of the United States and its allies fighting against the Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq, according to Russian media reports.
During a visit to Moscow, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the "overall policy of Tehran and Moscow, aimed at supporting Syria and Iraq, has been successful."
According to Russian outlet "Komsomolskaya pravda," Abdollahian went on to say that the United States had taken "hasty measures" to form an anti-IS coalition.
"The contradictory behavior of the U.S. in the war on terror is natural. Some countries, which are members of the coalition against IS on the one hand and which are assisting in various military operations on the other hand, have a direct link with the armed groups," Abdollahian was quoted as saying.
The Iranian deputy foreign minister was repeating Tehran's -- and Moscow's -- position that the armed opposition in Syria, including the Western-backed moderate Free Syrian Army, are illegal terrorist groups. As the strongest allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran have opposed efforts by the United States and other countries to back the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army. While both Russia and Iran oppose the IS group, they have joined the Assad government in condemning the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to combat IS in Syria, arguing that Washington and its allies are acting without the express consent of Damascus.
Abdollahian also spoke out in favor of Moscow's push to host new peace talks between Damascus and Syrian opposition groups. Abdollahian said that he had consulted with his counterpart, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, on the issue.
"In this context, we support Moscow's idea of talks between the government and the moderate opposition. Serious dialogue between the parties could have good effects," Abdollahian said, adding that Moscow was committed to the "preservation of Syrian sovereignty, the preservation of its territorial integrity and the unity of its people, and the recognition of the legitimacy of President Assad."
Abdollahian also said that Tehran was in support of "Moscow's idea of holding a meeting between representatives of the [Syrian] authorities and Syria's moderate opposition."
However, Moscow has not specified exactly which opposition groups should be represented at renewed talks, while it has continued to emphasize that the armed opposition are illegal terror groups.
This was particularly notable in comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an interview with the France-24 TV channel on December 16, the transcript of which was posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.
In the interview, Lavrov referred numerous times to talks between "Syrian opposition groups" and the Assad government
Lavrov said that a major stumbling block at Geneva-2 had been the fact that the opposition was represented only by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which he said "consisted of people who had emigrated some time ago to France, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey."
Lavrov's solution was to "convince opposition groups to come together and create a single delegation," but without specifying which groups should be involved.
Lavrov said that Moscow was "deeply involved" in preparations for the resumption of peace talks and had discussed the idea of peace talks with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura. Moscow was also meeting with the Syrian government as well as representatives of opposition groups.
"We have promoted the idea that before the start of Geneva-3 [under the formal auspices of the UN] there needs to be a 'warm-up,' if necessary, a preparatory meeting to bring together opposition groups to work out a common approach to negotiations with the government, and then government representatives can be invited to an informal meeting with the opposition to adopt an agenda for the process," Lavrov said.
According to Lavrov, the main reason that the previous round of peace talks, held in Switzerland in February, broke down was because participants could not agree whether the agenda should include "the fight against terrorism" or a political solution to the crisis.
Syrian government representatives refused to discuss what it called "terrorism" -- the armed opposition, which it blamed on its opponents -- and insisted that Assad must remain in power. The opposition SNC insisted that any transitional government must not include Assad.
Lavrov also reiterated Russia's support for a truce in Aleppo based on the plan put forward by the UN's de Mistura. The UN special envoy on Syria said in November that the shared threat of IS could promote truce measures between the Syrian government and rebel groups. Many rebel groups in Aleppo are opposed to the idea of a "freeze zone" in the city, saying that such a move would be tantamount to surrender.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk