MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday stopping “terrorists” fighting in Syria should be high on the agenda when an international peace conference convenes to try to end more than 2-1/2 years of conflict in the Arab nation.
The United Nations hopes the “Geneva 2” conference, which Moscow and Washington are trying to arrange, can be held in mid-December to seek a negotiated solution to a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The meeting has been delayed for months amid disagreements over whether President Bashar al-Assad should play any future role in Syria, dissension within the Syrian opposition and disputes on whether Iran should take part in the talks.
Lavrov’s comments are likely to upset the rebels fighting in Syria. Assad’s foes are also concerned that his removal may no longer be the top priority for Western powers.
“The overwhelming majority of our partners in all regions are beginning to understand that not changing regimes but fighting terrorists, wherever they lift their heads, is our common and absolutely unconditional priority,” Lavrov said.
“We think this should be one of the main themes on the agenda of the international conference,” he said, calling on Damascus to start working with moderate opposition groups on how to fight “terrorists trying to seize power”.
He was speaking at talks with Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and other Syrian officials in Moscow. The two men caught one another in a bear hug as the meeting began.
Lavrov also said Geneva 2 should look into ways of ending violence in Syria, freeing political prisoners and captives and ensuring wider access for humanitarian aid, among other things.
Russia is a long-standing arms supplier to Damascus and has its only naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartous.
Using its veto power as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia has repeatedly blocked resolutions aimed at pressing Damascus to end the bloodshed, prompting Western powers to accuse Moscow of shielding Assad from blame.
However, Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, forged an agreement in September for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, helping to avert threatened U.S. strikes on Syria after a sarin gas attack killed hundreds on the outskirts of Damascus in August.
“I want to confirm that solving the issue with chemical weapons in Syria will be fulfilled not 99 percent but a full 100 percent,” Mekdad told the meeting with Lavrov.
Separately, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Moscow his country believed that Geneva 2 could be held soon but that Syrian opposition groups had yet to commit fully to the meeting.
Russia wants Iran to take part but the United States, Saudi Arabia and the main opposition Syrian National Coalition have been against this. Amir-Abdollahian met Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as well as Syria’s Mekdad in Moscow.
“It seems we are nearing the holding of the Geneva 2 conference,” Amir-Abdollahian told a news conference via a translator, but added: “We believe there is still no full readiness among the (Syrian) opposition to take part.”
Russia and Iran have backed Assad’s struggle to crush an uprising which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests whose violent suppression eventually ignited an armed insurrection.
Moscow and Washington are still at odds over who will represent the Syrian opposition in Geneva.
“If our American colleagues and other partners succeed in forming one opposition delegation, we will welcome that,” Lavrov said. If that was not possible, “other ways of securing wide representation of all the spheres of the Syrian society should be found and agreed”, he added.
U.S. and Russian envoys are due to meet international Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on November 25 to discuss prospects for the Geneva peace conference, which is supposed to build on an agreement forged by world powers in the same city in June 2012.
It called for a political transition in Syria, but left open the question of whether Assad would have any role.
Editing by Alistair Lyon