MOSCOW (AP) — The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group has "responded positively" to a Russian offer to host talks with President Bashar Assad's government that could focus on humanitarian issues of the country's civil war, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
It was not immediately clear when the discussions could take place, or whether they would include direct contact between representatives of the Assad government and the Syrian National Coalition. But if the two sides were to agree to sit down together for talks on humanitarian issues, it could boost the prospects for a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene in Geneva for months.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that representatives of the opposition, who met with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Geneva, "responded positively" to the Kremlin's offer to host "informal contacts in Moscow for the entire spectrum of Syria's social and political forces."
Bogdanov said Wednesday after meeting with Syrian opposition leaders that the Moscow talks could focus on humanitarian problems as well as some political issues.
Veteran opposition figure Kamal Labwani, who is a member of the coalition, said the opposition was still considering whether to accept the Russian offer. The talks are envisioned as a venue for the coalition's technical experts to coordinate with the Syrian Red Crescent Society to secure the flow of food to besieged areas, he said.
"The Russians called on the opposition to meet with the regime there, but then the scaled it back to solving the humanitarian crisis," Labwani said. "They want to open a line of communication between the regime and the opposition through Russia."
He said some members of the coalition believe the Russians are trying to exploit the humanitarian crisis to bring the opposition to the negotiating table.
Another Syrian opposition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the opposition coalition already had decided to send experts to Moscow for the proposed talks on humanitarian corridors.
The coalition long has been calling on the international community to help secure desperately needed aid to civilians, particularly those in rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government forces.
The civil war in Syria has touched off a humanitarian catastrophe across the region. More than 2 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, while the U.N. said this week that more than 9 million Syrians — out of the country's pre-war population of 23 million — are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul, and Bassem Mroue and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.