Pro-Russia Opposition Joins Syria Peace Talks

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Peace talks to end the war in Syria intensified Wednesday with the inclusion of a pro-Russian opposition group, as the U.N. widened efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.

The entry into the Geneva talks of the so-called Moscow Group followed Russia's decision to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of President Bashar Assad.

This surprise withdrawal continued Wednesday as a second group of Russian warplanes flew out of Syria, with SU-25 combat aircraft and IL-76 transport planes pulled out of Russia's Hmeimim base in Syria.

The Moscow Group is tolerated by Damascus and has not insisted on Assad's departure as a precondition for setting up a transitional government, which is an unequivocal demand of the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

It was not immediately clear what impact the inclusion of the pro-Moscow group would have, or whether it was a gesture from United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura to Russia following the troop pull-out.

De Mistura has said the Russian withdrawal could have a "positive" impact on the negotiations aimed at ending the five-year civil war and that Moscow's announcement on the day the talks opened was "not a coincidence."

After multiple failed efforts to negotiate an end to brutal conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people, de Mistura has said he sees added "momentum" at this round of dialogue, which comes as a ceasefire imposed on February 27 remains broadly in place.

The U.N.'s envoy's tentative optimism was backed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who will head to Moscow next week to discuss the peace drive.

"We may face the best opportunity that we've had in years to end" the war, Kerry said Tuesday.

The Moscow Group includes Syria's former deputy premier Qadri Jamil, who was sacked by Assad in 2013 and is now viewed by Damascus as a moderate opponent.

Group member Fateh Jamous charged the more hardline HNC with imposing "conditions that we consider contradictory to the principle of consensus, including the condition of (Assad's) departure."

He said his camp would meet de Mistura later on Wednesday, information confirmed by the U.N. envoy's deputy, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy.

The pro-Russia faction will submit to de Mistura its ideas for a transitional government, "which cannot happen without consensus from all sides," Jamous said.

"Our invitation is proof that the talks have entered a new, more serious stage," he added.

Jamil was in Geneva for an earlier round of talks that collapsed in February but did not meet with de Mistura at the time.

Regime delegation head Bashar al-Jafaari appeared to welcome the arrival of the new opposition faction.

"No one can monopolize the opposition," Jafaari said after meeting with de Mistura, in a reference to the HNC.

He branded HNC lead negotiator Mohammed Alloush as a "terrorist" and said he would not meet him directly until Alloush apologized for insisting that the transition must start with Assad's fall or death.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told AFP on Tuesday that expanding the number of opposition delegations was "unacceptable".

The latest spat between opposing camps highlighted the huge obstacles standing in the way of a peace deal.

"Things are still very complicated," the U.N.'s Ramzy said, while noting the "important progress" made through the first three days of talks.

Wrangling over delegates has hampered past negotiations, especially the contentious issue of including Syrian Kurdish groups, which control large stretches of northern Syria but have not been invited to Geneva.

Kurdish-led parties meeting in northern Syria were expected to declare a new federal system in areas under their control later Wednesday, a move aimed at solidifying their autonomy, but which could complicate efforts to forge a united Syria after five years of fighting.

Asked about the expected Kurdish declaration, Jafaari refused to comment "on unilateral statements coming from here and there", but said Syrian Kurds "are an important component" of a united Syria.

Ramzy also declined to comment on any possible divisions of Syrian territory, insisting that the U.N. was focused on reaching a deal that leads to a transitional government, a fresh constitution and hold elections within 18 months.

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