PARIS (Reuters) - The Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) must be the main actor to unite all rebel groups in any future peace talks with the Damascus government, France said on Friday.
Key stakeholders in the more than four-year-old civil war held inconclusive talks in Vienna last month to try to narrow positions with a view to eventually bringing together government officials and opposition members to the negotiating table.
Despite having only tenuous links with rebels on the ground and seen as out of touch with the general population, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces remains one of the main parties in international talks.
“The Coalition must play a central role in bringing together the moderate opposition,” spokesman Romain Nadal after the coalition’s president, Khaled Khoja, met French officials including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Diplomats say the next round of international talks are likely towards the end of next week.
France, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s harshest critics, was the first Western state to recognize the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Monzer Makhous, the SNC’s representative in France, said the talks were aimed at coordinating positions and assessing the Vienna process. “We discussed the eventual possibility of finding a political solution,” he told Reuters.
One of the major sticking points holding up full-fledged negotiations is the opposition demand, bolstered by Western supporters, that Assad quit office as part of any peace settlement. Damascus has dismissed the demand.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the peace efforts by phone on Friday, Moscow’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said the exchange took place at Washington’s initiative and that the two men had also debated the battle against Islamic State insurgents and other Middle East militant groups.
Syrian government forces and allied militia, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah ground forces, have waged a fierce campaign for a month in the west of Syria that the United States says has mostly targeted foreign-backed or moderate insurgents, rather than Islamic State.
But Syrian government offensives are going more slowly than anticipated due to heightened Saudi support for rebels, senior sources close to the Syrian government said, as the insurgents pressed a counter attack on Friday.
Reporting by John Irish in Paris, Paulina Devitt and Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Beirut bureau; Editing by Mark Heinrich