Geneva, Mar 17: Peace talks to end Syria's brutal war broadened to include an opposition group close to Moscow, as the UN intensified efforts to find a political solution to the five-year conflict.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura met for the first time late yesterday with an umbrella delegation including the so-called Moscow Group, which are demanding an equal seat at the negotiating table.
That would be hotly contested by the "official" opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which insists it alone must represent the opposition in the talks. The UN did not clarify what role the new group would play in the negotiations but co-president Randa Kassis told reporters "We are here as a negotiating delegation."
The entry into the Geneva talks of the Moscow Group, along with the so-called Cairo and Istana groups, followed Russia's surprise decision to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Western governments voiced hopes the continuing pull-out could boost the talks by pressuring Assad. Russia has said its five-month bombing campaign in Syria had helped push back the jihadists and analysts say it has allowed Assad's forces to gain ground and cement their hold on key parts of the country.
But the US military yesterday said it had seen significant reduction in Russia's combat power in the war-torn country.
In Geneva, it was not immediately clear what impact the inclusion of the pro-Moscow group would have on the talks, or whether it was a gesture from de Mistura to Russia following the pullout.
The UN envoy has said Russia's action could have a "positive" impact on efforts to end the conflict and that Moscow's announcement on the day negotiations opened was "not a coincidence".
After multiple failed peace efforts, de Mistura has said he sees added "momentum" in the current round of dialogue, which comes as a ceasefire imposed on February 27 remains broadly in place.
His tentative optimism was backed by US Secretary of State John Kerry who heads to Moscow next week to discuss the peace drive. "We may face the best opportunity that we've had in years to end (the war)," Kerry said on Tuesday.
The conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and send millions fleeing, many seeking new lives in Europe where the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has created a huge headache for the EU.