BEIRUT — Talks on ending the Syrian civil war open in Moscow today, but with key opposition figures absent, little progress is expected on resolving the shifting conflict.
Instead, the discussions are expected to focus on humanitarian issues and serve as a way for Russia, a main backer of the Syrian administration, to build its profile as a potential mediator in the conflict.
"It will be the first meeting after the US-Iranian (nuclear) deal, and (US Secretary of State) John Kerry declined to rule out talking to President Bashar al-Assad," said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies.
"Given that context, one might have hoped for progress, but all indications are that there won't be any," he said.
"No political breakthrough can be expected.
"The regime still does not seem ready to make any concessions, and even the more-or-less tolerated opposition is being subjected to harassments that will prevent them taking part."
Syria's government will be represented by its UN envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, and members of the domestic "tolerated" opposition, the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), will attend.
The main Western-backed exiled Syrian opposition National Coalition will not be there, however, and another leading domestic opposition activist remains under a travel ban.
Louay Hussein, who heads the Building the Syrian State party, said that Damascus had refused to lift a travel ban imposed following his release on bail in February after three months in jail.
He is still awaiting an April 29 verdict on charges of having "weakened national sentiment". Yehya Aziz, a member of the NCCDC's executive committee, said that the talks were expected to focus mostly on humanitarian issues, and the possibility of reviving a political process based on previous negotiations in Switzerland.
"The talks will only discuss 'soft' subjects on which agreement might be found," one source close to the administration delegation confirmed.
According to Bitar, the talks will largely serve to bolster Moscow's profile as a potential deal broker, despite its strong alliance with the government.
"The main objective is for Russia to raise the Assad regime's profile and to position itself as an indispensable power when the climate becomes more favourable for an international diplomatic solution," he said.
Cairo is expected to host a meeting of some 150 opposition figures at the end of April, with talk of the creation of a new opposition body that could rival the Coalition. — AFP