Russia open to hard-liners attending Syria peace talks

President Vladimir Putin

Russia has said it supports the inclusion of all opposition parties in Syrian peace talks, including representatives of two hard-line Islamic groups.

The announcement came as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops captured a village north of the country’s largest city with the aid of Russian air strikes.

Syria’s official SANA news agency reported the capture of Hardatneen, north of Aleppo, as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura kicked off what he called a second day of peace talks in Geneva by hosting a government delegation for the second time since Friday. He also planned a separate meeting with the main opposition group later in the day.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, whose country has been a pivotal player along with the US in helping bring about the talks, told reporters in Abu Dhabi that Russia believes all opposition parties in Syria except for the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front should take part in the negotiations.

He said the inclusion of members of the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, hard-line Islamic groups, reflects the “realistic stances” on the ground in Syria. But he added that the groups’ participation in Geneva does not mean “recognition of them as legitimate partners” for peace.

Mr Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s view that the two Saudi-backed factions “are considered terrorist groups”, and that one or two individuals from the two who are at the peace talks must agree to end all killings and respect Syria’s territorial integrity.

The peace talks “should represent all parties of Syrian society”, he said, adding that he hoped the presence of the two groups would not derail the talks. He called on Mr de Mistura, who is hosting the talks in Geneva, to deal with all parties in a balanced way.

His remarks came just days after the Syrian government said it would “never accept” the inclusion of the two groups in the talks.

Moscow has been a key ally of the government throughout the five-year uprising and began launching air strikes on behalf of Assad’s troops four months ago.

The strikes have allowed Syrian troops to advance on a number of fronts. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors both sides of the conflict through activists on the ground, said government troops have captured three villages near Aleppo since Monday, opening access to a key supply route into the city.

The Observatory said heavy aerial bombardment, presumably from Russian warplanes, helped the troops advance.

In Geneva, meanwhile, both sides have accused each other of bad faith. The opposition has insisted that government air strikes and sieges of rebel-held areas must stop ahead of the talks, which aim to bring an end to a war that has killed at least 250,000 people, displaced millions from their homes and given an opening to the Islamic State group to seize vast swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

US secretary of state John Kerry, speaking from Rome at an international conference focusing on the battle against IS, called for immediate steps to help Syrians trapped in besieged villages, towns and cities with little access to food and medicine.

“The Syrian regime has a responsibility – in fact, all parties to the conflict have a duty to facilitate humanitarian access to Syrians in desperate need. And this has to happen not a week from now, not two weeks, not in a month,” he said. “It shouldn’t even be a bargaining chip. It ought to happen in the first days, and I hope everybody here will help us to make that happen.”

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