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Ahead Of Talks, Russia, Syria Emphasize Damascus's Military Role In Fight Against IS


Rebel fighters walk around al-Hamidiyeh base, one of two military posts they took control of from government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, in December.

Rebel fighters walk around al-Hamidiyeh base, one of two military posts they took control of from government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, in December.

Both Russia and Syria are continuing to emphasize the Syrian government's military's proficiency in battling the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria, as Russia continues to push for talks in Moscow between government and opposition figures.

On January 9, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Syrian Arab Army had "liquidated more than 30 IS militants in northeast Syria."

Citing Syrian state media, RIA wrote that Syrian government forces had carried out a military operation in several areas in the town of Deir al-Zor and its environs. RIA also noted the new offensive by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, against the Shi'ite villages of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo Province.

Absent from the RIA report and from reports in Syrian state media are references to the U.S.-led coalition against the IS group in Syria, which has carried out a number of air strikes this week against IS militants in Kobani.

Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar Joseph Bahout noted this week that the United States is also strangely absent from ongoing diplomatic efforts regarding Syria. Those efforts are being led by Russia and also Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's two strongest allies.

These efforts have involved visits by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to Damascus to meet with Assad; Bogdanov has also met with opposition figures. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem had a high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November.

Moscow has pushed for talks to be held in the Russian capital between representatives of the Assad government and Syrian opposition figures. In December, Russia's Foreign Ministry said it hoped to host the talks after January 20.

Iran has given its backing to such talks, with Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian saying during a visit to Moscow in December that Iran supported "Moscow's idea of talks between the government and the moderate opposition" and noting that "serious dialogue between the parties could have good effects."

A January 9 report by pan-Arab outlet Asharq al-Awsat quoted a senior Russian diplomat as saying that any such talks would be based on the June 2012 Geneva Communique, which calls for a transitional governing body with full executive powers to be established in Damascus. The diplomat's comments are likely intended to assure Syrian opposition figures, who said they would not attend talks unless they were based on the Geneva Communique.

The Russian diplomat told Asharq al-Awsat that at least 30 Syrian opposition figures had agreed to attend the talks later this month, and that invitations have been sent to Hadi al-Bahra and Moaz al-Khatib, two former leaders of the Syrian National Coalition. Bahra's successor, Khaled Khoja, said on January 5 that the National Coalition would not attend the Moscow talks with the Assad government "except in a negotiating framework intended to achieve a peaceful transition of power and the formation of a transitional body with full powers."

Syrian state TV said on December 27 that the Syrian government was prepared to take part in "preliminary, advisory meetings in Moscow."

Although the United States is, as Carnegie's Bahout noted, "strangely absent" from the diplomatic push for talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the France-24 TV channel in December that Moscow had involved the UN's special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Lavrov has expressed support for de Mistura's proposal for a truce in Aleppo, which would establish a "freeze zone" in the city to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians. Last month, the European Union expressed its support for the UN truce plan, saying it offered a glimmer of hope for a political solution.

In early December, de Mistura pitched the plan to Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. Rebel leaders, however, have expressed opposition to the truce plan.

The Russian diplomat told Asharq al-Awsat that de Mistura will not attend the Moscow talks.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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