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May 27, 2017

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Syria opposition urge Russia to pressure Assad

MOSCOW--Syria's opposition leader met Russia's top diplomat on Tuesday in a bid to persuade Moscow to push its ally Damascus to agree to a transitional government for the war-scarred nation.

The talks between Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came after an inconclusive 10-day peace conference in Geneva concluded on Friday without a commitment from Damascus to attend a new round of negotiations set for Feb. 10.

Last month's so-called Geneva II meeting was promoted jointly by Washington — a firm backer of the Syrian opposition — and Moscow in a bid to convince the warring sides to sit down for direct talks for the first time.

But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's team and the opposition made no progress on local ceasefires or permission for humanitarian corridors to some of the country's more devastated cities such as Homs.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov indicated on Tuesday that Moscow expected Assad to state firmly his delegation's intentions to resume the Geneva negotiations next week.

"We have no doubt Damascus will issue orders for the government delegation to continue the negotiations in Geneva," Russian news agencies quoted Gatilov as saying at the start of Jarba's talks with Lavrov.

An aide to Jarba said the umbrella opposition group was especially concerned that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had avoided any discussion of a transitional government that could pave the way for Assad's removal from power.

"The main subjects of discussion with the Russian foreign minister will be the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Syrian cities, the release of prisoners from Syrian jails, and the formation of a transitional government," Jarba's head adviser Monzer Aqbiq told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.

"Considering this last point, we have many questions that we will be able to discuss with Moscow," Aqbiq was quoted as saying.

But Lavrov gave no initial signal on Tuesday that Moscow intended to step up its pressure on Assad.

"I think that today's conversation will be very, very useful in helping clarify approaches that could help advance the Geneva process," Lavrov told the Syrian opposition chief.

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