Lavrov, Kerry hold last-minute phone call ahead of Syria peace talks in Geneva

A girl pushes a boy on a bicycle past damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria January 23, 2016. © Bassam Khabieh
The Russian foreign minister and the US secretary of state have held one last phone conversation just hours before the Syrian peace talks were due to begin in Geneva. The Syrian opposition’s delegation has expressed readiness to sit down for the talks without preconditions.

LIVE UPDATES: Syria peace talks in Geneva

The phone talk between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry took place Saturday, TASS reports. The diplomats agreed that at the initial stage of the negotiations all sides must concentrate on settling humanitarian issues in the war-torn country, i.e. delivery of humanitarian supplies to besieged territories with disrupted supply lines - and only then get to political reforms and elections.

READ MORE: Russia's approach to humanitarian problems in Syria

FM Lavrov and Secretary Kerry agreed to personally discuss the outcome of the first round of negotiations in Munich on February 11.

The sides also discussed the commitment of the Syrian opposition to hold negotiations with the government in Damascus.

Salem al-Mouslad, the spokesman for the Syrian opposition delegation formed in Saudi Arabia, which already arrived in Switzerland on Saturday, told journalists that the opposition is ready to start talks in Geneva without preconditions.

It was reported earlier that previously the opposition preconditioned putting an end to airstrikes before their participation in the peace talks, which might last as long as half a year.

The chairman of the Russian parliament's lower house International Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov, believes that the Syrian opposition had to take part in the Geneva talks without putting forward any preconditions because of the recent successes of the Syrian government troops staging an assault on the opposition forces.

“The Syrian opposition has realized that as long as it sets forth conditions, Assad's army will move forward. Eventually, it agreed to take part in the negotiations without preconditions,” Pushkov tweeted.

A source close to the opposition told TASS on Saturday that former Syrian Premier Riyad Hijab, who is now coordinator of the Riyadh-formed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), is not going to come to Geneva for the talks.

Hijab has posted an online statement in Arabic, claiming: “If the regime insists on continuing to commit these crimes, then the HNC delegation's presence in Geneva will not be justified.”

“The delegation will inform de Mistura (UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura) of its intentions to withdraw its negotiating team if the UN and world powers are unable to stop these violations,” Al Jazeera quoted Hijab as saying.

Salem al-Mouslad also told journalists that the opposition’s delegation is ready to meet with the Syrian government's delegation if there is “positive progress” during the talks in Geneva.

The delegation sent to the talks by the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), left Geneva on Saturday, after being excluded from the negotiations as the presence of Kurdish representatives remains a divisive issue for the Syrian opposition, which has been fighting against them.

By contrast, a representative of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) group, a coalition of Islamist and Salafist armed units fighting against the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is expected to take part.

No representatives from another Islamist group, the Ahrar al-Sham group (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), will be coming to Geneva. "But this is not our order. Perhaps they cannot come because they see no hope in the negotiations," TASS cited a representative of the Syrian opposition delegation, Riyad Naasan Agha, as saying.

Moscow has been opposed to both groups' participation in the talks, since Russia considers them to be terrorist organizations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov provided evidence to prove that to US Secretary of State John Kerry in Zurich on January 20.

“The first of these groups is known for repeatedly shelling residential quarters of Damascus and the Russian Embassy. Ahrar al-Sham is the direct offshoot of Al Qaeda,” Lavrov said, expressing hope that the evidence presented would be enough to identify both groups as terrorist organizations by the International Syria Support Group.