Internationally brokered talks between Syria's government and opposition groups should start this month as planned, Russia and the United States said on Wednesday, despite no sign of agreement on who should represent the opposition.
Speaking after meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said neither of them had thought about seeking a postponement of the talks, which are scheduled to start in Geneva on January 25.
"We have no intentions to postpone the talks from January to February. This is both the position of Russia and the United States, and we are confident that in the next days, in January, such talks must start."
Lavrov said various dates were being mooted, but the final decision was for the UN Secretary General on the advice of his special envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura.
"We hope the negotiating process will begin this month," Lavrov said. "I stress that this will be just the start, because of course it will take a lot of time, a whole range of arduous tasks are to be resolved."
Kerry's spokesman, John Kirby, said Kerry and Lavrov discussed "the importance of maintaining progress toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria."
"There's been no change in our desire to see this meeting happen on the 25, and the Secretary reiterated that," he said.
Kirby said Kerry also pressed Russia to use its influence with President Bashar al-Assad to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access to Syrians, especially those in besieged areas such as Madaya where people are reported to have died from starvation.
No agreement over rebels
The United Nations said on Monday it would not issue invitations to the talks until major powers promoting the negotiations, which include the United States and Russia, agree which rebel representatives should attend. The United States and Russia support opposite sides in the conflict.
De Mistura's spokeswoman, Jessy Chahine, declined to comment on Wednesday's talks, except to say the UN's Syria envoy was "continuing his consultations."
Russia and Iran, which support Assad, have rejected attempts by Saudi Arabia, which like the United States and European powers opposes Assad, to organize the Syrian opposition and delegation for the talks.
Iran's foreign minister said on Wednesday it was up to de Mistura to decide who represents the opposition, but he said that 10 delegates at a recent opposition gathering in Saudi Arabia were members of al Qaeda - one of three groups he said must be barred.
A Syrian opposition council formed in Riyadh last month said on Wednesday it would not attend peace negotiations if a third party joins the talks, a reference to a Russian bid to include other groups in the process.
Riad Hijab, who heads the council, accused Russia of impeding negotiations, and also said the opposition could not negotiate while Syrians were dying as a result of blockades and bombardment.
He announced the names of opposition figures that would take part in any talks. They included Mohamed Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group that is deemed a terrorist group by Damascus and Moscow.
Lavrov said Moscow still considered the Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham groups terrorist organizations and that a ceasefire after a political process is put in place "will not apply to the terrorist organizations."
Lavrov said Russia, the U.S. and other parties supporting the Syrian talks would not take part in the negotiations.
However, they would "follow them in those forms which will be most useful for the Syrians to reach agreements, how they will jointly solve the problems of the transition period, what the new constitution will look like, how to prepare new elections and many other issues," he said.
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