Syria ready to meet opposition in Moscow

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syria’s regime is willing to meet the country’s opposition in Moscow to seek a way out of the nearly four-year civil war, a government official said on Saturday.

“Syria is ready to participate in a preliminary and consultative meeting in Moscow to respond to the aspirations of Syrians who are trying to find a solution to the crisis,” the foreign ministry official said, quoted by Sana state news agency.

The decision followed talks between Syria and Russia about a possible meeting, the official said.

“The Syrian Arab Republic has always been ready for dialogue with those who believe in its unity, sovereignty and freedom of choice,” the official added.

Syria’s war began as a pro-democracy revolt, but escalated into a multi-sided civil war drawing foreign militants after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began a massive crackdown on dissent.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed, and half the population have been forced to flee their homes.

Russia has been trying to relaunch peace talks for Syria that would include meetings between delegates of the regime and the fractured opposition.

The Russian foreign ministry declined to comment on Saturday.

But on Thursday, Moscow said that it planned to host delegations from the Syrian opposition in late January, possibly followed by a visit by regime representatives that could bring the two sides together for talks.

Assad has said he backs the efforts by his key ally.

The main opposition coalition held talks with Syria’s government earlier this year.

But they collapsed as the opposition demanded Assad’s resignation, while the regime insisted the main focus of the negotiation should be on fighting “terrorism”.

Since then, some opposition figures have suggested that a deal could see Assad remain in power for a limited time.

The change in tone reflects growing concern over advances by jihadists who have expelled more moderate opposition rebels from large areas.

Foreign fighters have flocked to join Al-Qaeda-linked militants and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group which led an offensive that seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, committing widespread atrocities.

A monitoring group said Saturday that ISIS had lost ground in the Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish fighters now control more than 60 per cent of territory.The strategically located town on the border with Turkey has become a major symbol of resistance against ISIS.

The militants launched a major offensive in mid-September to try to capture Kobane, and at one point controlled more than half of the town, known in Arabic as Ain al-Arab.

But supported by US-led air strikes and reinforced by Kurds from Iraq, “Kurdish forces now control more than 60 per cent of the city", said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“IS has even left areas that the Kurds did not enter for fear of mines,” he added.