Reuters International

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's main opposition group said on Monday the European Union should impose targeted sanctions on Russian companies supporting the war in Syria as it sought to consolidate its position before a potential new round of peace talks in Geneva next month.

"We are looking at more targeted sanctions (against) companies...involved in arms shipments, the ones that are taking part in some of the indiscriminate bombing that is taking place. This is what we are calling for," Basma Kodmani, a negotiator for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told Reuters.

"Sanctions have been part of EU policy in other situations, certainly in the Ukraine crisis, the EU has made those decisions, has implemented them, has renewed them. We don’t see how the EU can still consider Syria of lesser importance than Ukraine," she said after meeting EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and government officials in Brussels.

Any weakening of EU sanctions on Russia would be read by the Kremlin and by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a sign that there was space for his government "to make a comeback on the international scene", Kodmani said.

She did not name any Russian companies that could be subjected to sanctions.

Although the ultimate say on sanctions lies with EU member governments, Kodmani said Europe's vital interests were at stake in Syria and that Mogherini appeared receptive.

Internal EU ructions over Britain's vote last week to leave the European Union appeared to make the 28-nation bloc more, rather than less, determined to play a role on Syria, she said.

"Never mind Brexit...What we have heard here in Brussels so far, including from Mrs Mogherini, is that she is all the more determined to make her voice heard in this context, particularly with Russia, as well as using her good relations with Iran, to have those two decisive players turn to a more constructive and positive behaviour in Syria."

ASSAD'S TWO KEY ALLIES

Russia and Iran have been Assad's main allies in his more than five-year-long civil war with rebels seeking to overthrow him.

U.N.-mediated peace talks have been suspended since late April while the fighting has dramatically escalated. Kodmani said the problem was not fighting on the ground but Syrian and Russian air strikes, accounting for 90 percent of hostilities.

The war has killed up to 400,000 people and created the world's worst refugee crisis, with around half of Syria's population uprooted, according to U.N. officials.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he wants to make negotiating progress via "technical talks" between members of his team and each side before bringing the warring parties back to Geneva for a final round of talks, with July in mind.

Kodmani said Assad's government had rejected technical talks, while the HNC was about to present a new document to the United Nations containing a detailed, sequenced vision of Syria's political transition. The document did not make any compromises on the question of Assad's future, she said.

The opposition has said Assad must leave office as part of any transition, a condition he rejects.

The HNC has also beefed up its negotiating position by absorbing two smaller opposition groups known as the Moscow and Cairo Platforms. But a similar alliance with the Kurdish opposition PYD, which has so far been excluded from Geneva talks, is not a priority, Kodmani said.

"Unfortunately we find the PYD on different fronts fighting the opposition and allowing the regime to make progress and striking deals sometimes on certain fronts. This is very upsetting and very alarming," she said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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