Edith M. Lederer
A key aim of this weekend's high-level meeting on Syria is to get countries that support moderate opposition groups to use their influence to work for a new cease-fire, Russia's U.N. ambassador said Friday.
Vitaly Churkin said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be joined in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday by ministers from a small group of countries that have a lot of influence with opposition fighters.
He named Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Reports from the region said Iran and Qatar would attend. And Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, told RIA Novosti news agency that Moscow wants Iraq and Egypt to participate.
Lavrov has said a major reason the Sept. 9 cease-fire agreement that he reached with Kerry failed was the inability of the U.S. and other countries trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad to separate the moderate opposition groups they support from the former al-Qaida affiliate once known as the Nusra Front.
Following last month's collapse of the cease-fire, the Obama administration cut off diplomatic talks and Washington-Moscow ties deteriorated sharply. The Lausanne meeting, initiated by Kerry, is the first attempt to try to find a new viable strategy to stem the violence which continues to mount in Aleppo and elsewhere.
"I don't have any particular expectations," Lavrov said Friday in Moscow, putting a damper on prospects for a positive outcome. "So far, we haven't seen our partners to make any steps to get closer to fulfilling the agreements that we have."
Churkin said Kerry and Lavrov decided "to revisit" the format they originally discussed three years ago of meeting with a small group of countries that have close ties with moderate opposition groups instead of some 20 countries in the International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, where it was difficult to agree on specifics.
At Saturday's smaller meeting, Churkin said, "I think it will be very important to see: Are they prepared to really work for a cessation of hostilities?"
"If this time they are more responsible about it, then progress can be made," he said.
Churkin said Lavrov and Kerry can then "revisit the arrangements" in the Sept. 9 cessation of hostilities agreement.
"I think both we and the Americans believe that this is not beyond the realm of the possible, to restart those arrangements," Churkin said.
At an ISSG meeting last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting, he said, Lavrov noted "that 20 so-called moderate opposition groups said that they do not want to have a cessation of hostilities."
He stressed that a key aim of the Sept. 9 agreement was to make sure the cease-fire held so the United States and Russia could together go after the Nusra Front and the Islamic State extremist group.
Churkin expressed concern at new information Friday "that those so-called moderate groups are making new arrangements with Nusra."
"So this is one of the major sticking points," he said, "and hopefully at this meeting in Lausanne those countries that have an influence will take a stronger stand so that those groups, in fact, could distance from Nusra."
The meeting comes a week after rival resolutions on Syria backed by the West and Russia were defeated in the U.N. Security Council on Saturday.
At the acrimonious meeting, Russia vetoed a French-drafted resolution demanding an immediate halt to the bombing campaign that the Syrian government and Russia are carrying out against rebel-held districts in Aleppo. The rival Russian draft, which made no mention of a bombing halt, failed to get the minimum nine "yes" votes needed for approval by the 15-member council.
New Zealand has circulated a new draft which "demands an immediate and complete end to all attacks which may result in the death or injury or damage to civilian objects in Syria, in particular those carried out by air in Aleppo."
Lavrov's deputy, Gennady Gatilov, said Friday that a new council resolution must endorse provisions of the U.S.-Russian truce and include U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura's proposal for Nusra, now called Fatah al-Sham Front, to leave Aleppo in exchange for a halt in Russian and Syrian army attacks.
The militant group already has rejected de Mistura's suggestion.
Churkin warned that if the new text includes things rejected in the French resolution "it's not going to work."
"I hope it's going to be a more serious effort," he said, adding that "the best scenario would be if it is completed "by some achievements in Lausanne."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow