Russia offers to host new talks on Syria
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday it would be ready to host a new meeting of world powers aimed at ending the conflict in Syria and proposed broadening the talks to invite other countries, including Iran.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Moscow had made the proposal at an international meeting in Geneva on June 30.
"From our side, I can only confirm that we would welcome the organization of a regular session of an 'Action Group' in Moscow ... In any case we see the relevance in carrying out such an event," the Interfax news agency quoted Bogdanov as saying.
International powers agreed in Geneva that a transitional government should be set up in Syria but left open the question of what role President Bashar al-Assad might play.
Russia, which is hosting Syrian opposition groups for talks, is under international pressure to exert influence over Assad's government to make it stick to a peace plan laid out by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan. Moscow, along with China, has protected Assad from harsher sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.
The foreign ministers of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members - Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain - all attended the Geneva meeting along with Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Bogdanov repeated Russia's position that any similar meetings in future should include other countries that have influence over the Syrian situation - namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"Moscow regrets that because of the positions of a number of our partners Iran and Saudi Arabia were not present in Geneva," he said.
Washington and its allies - which are trying to isolate Iran to force it to curb its nuclear activities - firmly oppose allowing Tehran to attend such meetings.
The Shi'ite Muslim Islamic Republic has defended the Syrian government, which is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Meanwhile, Syria has accused the Sunni-led Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, of supporting unrest among its Sunni majority as a way of checking rising Shi'ite influence in the region, most notably that of Iran.
Opposition representatives - in Moscow for talks - said they would only take part in discussions with the Syrian government after changes in leadership, a precondition Russia rejects and one which is not stipulated in Annan's plan.
Speaking ahead of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syria National Council, said the opposition would be looking for signs of change in Russia's stance.
"We think we and Russia share some positions we can talk about. Russia fears chaos and complete anarchy in Syria and we also fear for our country," she told a news conference.
Russian news agencies said on Monday that Russia planned to suspend arms shipments to Syria, possibly signaling a shift in its stance towards Assad, whom it has defended from harsher sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
Repeating Moscow's assertions that it is not backing Assad, Bogdanov said Russia was not "linked to any concrete personalities".
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Osborn)