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The Globe and Mail

Russia holds ground-breaking talks with Syrian opposition, wants to maintain ‘regular contact’

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, laughs as he talks to Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, during the International Security Conference in Munich on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Mr. Lavrov met with Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib and said he wants to maintain regular contact with the Syrian opposition.

Matthias Schrader/AP

Ground-breaking talks between the Russian foreign minister and the Syrian opposition leader have bolstered a global push to narrow sharp differences over how to end the conflict in Syria.

Moscow said Saturday it wanted to keep in regular contact with the Syrian opposition, after its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib met for the first time.

"I reminded Khatib that after the creation of the coalition and the appointment of their leader, we immediately demonstrated our interest in maintaining regular contact," Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying after the meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

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"We will make that happen," he added.

Mr. Lavrov had earlier Saturday held talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi amid strong disagreement between Moscow and Washington about ways to end the 22-month Syria conflict, which according to the United Nations has claimed upwards of 60,000 lives.

Mr. Khatib, who became the head of the coalition late last year, reiterated on the opening day of the Munich talks Friday an earlier surprise announcement that his group is ready for dialogue with the Damascus regime – subject to conditions including the release of 160,000 detainees.

Mr. Lavrov said Moscow welcomed the initiative, adding: "If we take into account the fact that the coalition was founded on a refusal to engage in a dialogue with the regime, it's a very important step."

Mr. Biden, in his meeting with Mr. Lavrov, called on Washington and Moscow to put aside "serious differences" and stressed the need for U.S.-Russian cooperation, including over Syria, the White House said.

Moscow's engagement with the Syrian opposition comes just days after Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev took the rare step of criticising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Assad made a "grave, perhaps fatal error" in not reaching out more quickly to the Syrian opposition "which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him", Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Medvedev as saying on Sunday last week.

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"It seems to me that his chances of staying (in power) are shrinking day by day," Mr. Medvedev told CNN television.

Mr. Biden also met Mr. Khatib and Mr. Brahimi in Munich on Saturday.

He "urged Khatib to continue his efforts to maintain unity among the SOC (Syrian Opposition Coalition) leadership, to isolate extremist elements within the broader opposition, and to reach out to, and be inclusive of, a broad range of communities inside Syria, including Alawites, Christians and Kurds", according to a White House statement.

Earlier the U.S. vice president insisted Mr. Assad was a "tyrant" and must go.

The U.S. and its allies have made repeated calls for Mr. Assad's ousting. Key Damascus ally Russia has resisted any international action, arguing that the Syrian people must decide their own fate.

Mr. Lavrov, whose country has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Mr. Assad for the violence, called for another meeting of the Syrian action group led by Mr. Brahimi to try to reach agreement on a transition, saying he believed progress was possible.

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He said Moscow shared Washington's concern about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.

"We coordinate this issue with the Americans on a daily basis. We have reliable information that for now, the Syrian government has control of the chemical weapons, that the situation is safe," Mr. Lavrov said in his address to the conference.

"I think that this [the use of chemical weapons] is a 'red line' for everyone. We are categorically against the use of any arms."

In a dramatic development last week, Syria said Israeli air strikes hit a weapons research centre near Damascus and threatened to retaliate.

Israel has not commented on the reports, but a U.S. official said an Israeli raid struck surface-to-air missiles and a nearby military complex on the capital's outskirts.

Israel has frequently warned that if Syrian chemical weapons fall into the hands of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, its arch-foe and close Damascus ally, this would be a casus belli.

U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told AFP that Washington is also concerned the "chaos" in Syria could allow Hezbollah to obtain sophisticated weaponry.

On the ground on Saturday, rebels were reported to have taken control of the Sheikh Said district of Aleppo, Syria's second city, in a strategic victory securing a key route to its international airport.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists and medics on the ground for its information, said at least 114 people were killed on Saturday: 46 civilians, 33 rebels and 35 soldiers.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian official visiting Damascus reiterated that his country stood squarely behind the Syrian regime.

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