The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main Western-backed political opposition group fighting the Syrian government, says it opposes a Russian-sponsored congress of Syrian groups, calling it an attempt to circumvent the UN-backed Geneva peace talks that aim for a political transition for the war-torn country.
Turkey and Iran on October 31 endorsed Russia's proposal to host talks between the Syrian government and its opponents next month in Sochi to try to move the war-torn country toward a political settlement.
The congress proposal was one of the few notable outcomes from the seventh round of talks on Syria held in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on October 30 and 31.
"The coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without UN sponsorship," SNC spokesman Ahmad Ramadan told Reuters.
The Astana talks that began in January have run parallel to UN-sponsored negotiations which despite backing from Western and Middle Eastern powers have largely stalled.
"Russia's call for a conference for Syrians in Sochi is an attempt to circumvent Geneva and the international desire for a political transition in Syria in accordance with UN security council resolutions," the Turkey-based SNC said.
A joint statement released by Russia and Iran, the Syrian government's main backers, and Turkey, which backs its armed opponents, agreed to the "initiative of Russia" to host Syrian government representatives and opposition groups in a face-to-face meeting on November 18 without any representatives from the West.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's website listed 33 Syrian organizations invited to a "Congress of Syrian National Dialogue," including Kurdish groups that previously have been left out of peace negotiations though they currently control at least a quarter of Syrian territory.
While Russia has been the strongest backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a six-year civil war that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, it hopes to attract rebel groups to the Sochi gathering.
Russia's chief negotiator for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, urged opposition factions to participate "without preconditions" in the meeting, which he said would touch on constitutional reform and aim at creating a democratic, secular state.
"If someone is against these principles...they will of course not go there," Lavrentyev said. "But then we think they will risk being sidelined in the political process."
Lavrentyev has also expressed hope that United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura would take part in the Sochi meeting, but the UN official did not immediately say whether he would go.
"We want to emphasize that this event should be part of the international community's efforts to find effective mechanisms for political settlement," Lavrentyev said.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja'afari said his government was ready to participate.
But representatives of the Syrian opposition in Astana were wary of the plan.
Yehya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition, said the proposed congress was "really worrying" and it is unclear who would join in.
Aridi said he feared the congress will be used as "fabricated" evidence of reconciliation to mislead both Syrians and foreign countries.
"We told Russia, 'First stop killing our children'," said another rebel representative, Yasser Abdelrahim, who brandished what he said were photos of dead rebel children at the plenary session in Astana on October 31.
Kurdish groups were open to the proposal, however. "We are studying the issue and our stance has been positive so far," Badran Jia Kurd, an adviser to the administration that governs Kurdish-led autonomous regions of Syria, told Reuters.
While the Astana talks have had some success establishing limited cease-fires and no-conflict zones amid ongoing battles, the Geneva talks so far have not led to either lasting cease-fires or political settlements.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on October 31 suggested that the congress plan, like the Astana talks, is an attempt at reviving the stalled Geneva negotiations.
In light of the "slowing in the efforts made as part of the Geneva process," Lavrov said, "we believe it is necessary not to hesitate but rather to seize the initiative."
The conflict in Syria is expected to be high on the agenda when Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Hassan Rohani on November 1, the Kremlin said.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and TASS