Russia denies 'hidden agenda' in Syria

Russia denies 'hidden agenda' in Syria

Moscow (AFP) - Russia denied Thursday harbouring a "hidden agenda" on Syria as it launched a fresh round of crisis diplomacy with top Syrian and Iranian diplomats ahead of historic peace talks.

The allies' foreign ministers huddled in a mansion in Moscow to devise a joint stance that would ease the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to step down when the Syrian peace talks open next week in Switzerland after months of delays.

The whirlwind diplomacy came as new "fierce" clashes raged between mainstream rebels and the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the northwestern edge of Syria near the Turkish border, according to British-based Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said two weeks of battles between the rival anti-regime camps have killed at least 1,069 people.

After 34 months of fighting, the Syrian conflict has claimed around 130,000 lives and displaced millions more.

Ahead of peace talks at the Swiss lakeside city of Montreux, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and its allies had nothing to hide.

"This does not mean that we have some tri-party (peace) draft," Lavrov told reporters at a joint press appearance with Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif.

"We have nothing to hide. We have no hidden agenda," he said, before he and Zarif joined Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for more discussions.

Iran rejects 'preconditions'

Russia's role in seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis was heightened in September when Putin managed to avert seemingly inevitable US strikes against Russia's closest Middle East ally by forcing Assad to renounce his chemical weapons and plans to destroy the arsenal are under way.

Italy on Thursday announced that the port of Gioia Tauro in the Calabria region would receive some 500 tonnes of Syrian chemical agents -- including mustard gas -- despite fierce opposition from local officials who slammed the move as undemocratic.

With the so-called Geneva II conference set to open on Wednesday, Moscow wants to convince Washington to accept Tehran's presence at the talks to bolster its efforts to keep Assad in power and curb the future influence of his foes.

"We expect (Geneva II) to include all parties that are capable of making a positive contribution to settling the conflict," Putin told a Kremlin awards ceremony prior to his meeting with the Iranian diplomat.

Zarif said only that Iran would attend the Swiss meetings "if we are invited".

But the Russian foreign ministry also stressed that the talks should be "based on the provisions of the (June 2012) Geneva Communique" -- a document Iran rejected because it paved the way for a transitional government that could potentially replace Assad.

The United States says Iran must sign up to the accord before it can formally join the talks, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said no final decision had been reached on the Islamic republic's involvement.

But Zarif said Iran would only attend the Swiss conference "without preconditions".

In Damascus, Syria's National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said Geneva II will not solve the Syrian crisis.

"Don't expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis," he said.

"The solution has begun, and will continue through the military triumph of the state."

It remains unclear whether Syria's divided opposition will even join next week's peace talks, with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday urging them to take part.

"The Syrian people need to be able to determine the future of their country, their voice must be heard,"," he said, ahead of a planned vote on the issue Friday.

Russian missile purchases

Meanwhile, Zarif also visited President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin to discuss curbs on Tehran's nuclear programme and the possible purchase of missiles that could fend off airstrikes by its arch-foe Israel.

"I am very happy to note that thanks to your efforts... we have managed to make progress on one of the most pressing modern problems -- the Iranian nuclear problem," Putin told Zarif in brief opening remarks.

Analysts said Moscow and Tehran are now trying to draw up their own post-war plan that is based on Washington's growing anxiety about the presence of Al-Qaeda sympathisers in Syrian rebel ranks.

"A large part of these negotiations are focused on what happens after Geneva II," said Alexander Konovalov of Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessment.

The Kremlin appears to hold strong leverage over the Islamic republic because of Iran's desire to purchase Russian missiles and other high-tech arms.

This can help Moscow wrest concessions sought by the West over both Tehran's support for Hezbollah and its contested nuclear drive.

Iran has agreed to curb its nuclear programme starting January 20 in exchange for about $7 billion in sanctions relief.

Moscow in 2010 bowed to US and Israeli pressure by aborting an $800-million deal to supply Tehran with an S-300 surface-to-air missile system that would have imperilled any Israeli jets targeting Iranian nuclear sites.

Zarif meanwhile told Interfax that Iran does not want to acquire the more powerful Antey-2500 system. Iran's Fars news agency had said Tehran would try to purchase missiles that included the system.