Moscow set to host Syria talks amid opposition boycott

Moscow says the aim of the conference is to find ways to restart peace talks that collapsed in Geneva last year

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Syrian opposition figures are set to begin on Monday four days of talks with the regime on finding ways to end the nearly four-year conflict, amid a boycott by the main exiled opposition bloc.

Moscow says the aim of the conference is to find ways to restart peace talks that collapsed in Geneva last year.

The war in Syria, which began in 2011 following peaceful protests calling for reforms and then the removal of Assad, has killed more than 200,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Russia’s longstanding proposals for a peace plan do not require Assad to leave power, which Assad's main opponents consider the basis for any talks.

Assad himself, speaking to a Czech magazine in an interview published earlier this month, said the purpose of the conference is to discuss “the unity of Syria, containing terrorist organization’s [and] supporting the army.”

While some opposition figures could attend, it will be as individuals rather than representatives of major factions. Most are likely to hail from a Damascus-based official opposition tolerated by Assad and viewed as traitors by his armed enemies.

None of the main Sunni Muslim insurgent groups fighting on the ground have been invited.

The main opposition alliance, the Turkey-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, once touted by Western and Arab countries as a government in exile, is boycotting. It denounced the host Russia as a country that "supports the atrocities the Syrian regime is committing."

Assad, in an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine published Monday, said the nearly four-year-old conflict could only be ended with a political solution, but cast doubt on the value of talks being organized this week by his key ally Russia.

Assad said his government would attend, but asked: "Who do you negotiate with?

"We have institutions, we have an army and we have influence," he said.

"The people we are going to negotiate with, who do they represent?"

His government has long argued that the exiled opposition does not represent people inside Syria, accusing it of being "puppets" of its main foreign backers.

Two U.N. mediators have hosted high profile conferences in Geneva, only to quit in frustration after their talks failed to yield meaningful progress.

A year after the last failed conference, the latest U.N. mediator, Steffan de Mistura, is no longer emphasizing a political deal, instead seeking to broker local cease-fires to reduce the humanitarian impact of fighting on civilians.

(With Al Arabiya News)

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