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(Bloomberg) -- Talks on ending the four-year civil war in Syria move two time zones and 1,500 miles east this month to Moscow from Geneva, though with little hope of making any progress down the road to peace.
After failing to reach an agreement in Switzerland last year, Syrians representing the government of President Bashar al-Assad and some opposition factions arrive in Moscow on Jan. 26 for talks expected to last four days.
Yet the new effort by Russia, an ally of Assad, appears to be a repeat of last year’s Geneva II negotiations with exactly the same sticking points: Assad’s future, who represents the opposition and the inability of Assad’s foes to implement any deal given their lack of influence over the more powerful Islamic State group and al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
“It’s a key to an empty room,” said Aaron Miller, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Will it work and have any more resonance than the Geneva process? How can it?”
While the U.S. welcomed the talks in Moscow, it isn’t clear whether the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition that Washington supports, will attend. Russia has invited individual members, though not the group itself, Abdelbaset Sieda, who has been asked to attend, said from Stockholm, where he lives.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Jan. 14 in Moscow that Russia had sent as many as 30 invitations to the Syrian opposition.
“We don’t have high hopes for the meeting,” Sieda said. “There are no confidence-building measures by the regime to signal it’s ready for a solution, no prisoner releases, for example, or cease-fires.”
Assad’s government and a few opposition groups sanctioned by it have said they will go to the talks.
The Syrian president told Czech newspaper Literarni Noviny this month Syrian officials are going to Russia “not to start a dialog, but to meet these different personalities to discuss the basis of dialog when it starts.”
“If we succeed, it’s a good thing. If we don’t, we will not lose anything,” Assad said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Jan. 14 that those who decide not to participate in this event will “surrender their influence over the negotiating process.”
“In the course of our contacts with various opposition groups and governments in countries where they operate, we get the impression that they understand the logic and even necessity of such a meeting,” Lavrov said in Moscow.
What started with peaceful anti-Assad protests spiraled into a violent war spreading instability to neighboring countries and putting Europe and the U.S. at increased risk of terrorist attacks. The perpetrators of the deaths at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris this month were lauded by Islamic State.
The push to hold the talks comes a few weeks before the fourth anniversary of the conflict, which has wreaked damage that has taken the country back 40 years, according to United Nations special envoy Staffan De Mistura.
In a country of 23 million people, at least 220,000 have been killed, 1 million wounded, 7.6 million internally displaced and 3.3 million have fled, De Mistura said on Jan. 15.
He said he hoped the rise of Islamic State last year as a new influence in the Syrian conflict would build momentum to negotiating a political solution to the war.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow is still working on trying to convince the Syrian opposition about the need to attend.
“The failure to resolve the Syrian conflict is directly provoking” attacks such as at Charlie Hebdo, Lukashevich said by phone. “We have to put an end to it.”
Military offensives against Islamic State are limited primarily to Iraq, with the U.S. carrying out air assaults against the extremist group’s strongholds in Syria with the Assad regime’s consent.
The U.K. and France have in private expressed concern that the Obama administration’s focus on Islamic State will lead to a roll back in its demand for Assad’s immediate exit, according to a European diplomat briefed on conversations.
Islamic State’s continued killing of hostages and demands for ransom, such as the $200 million it currently seeks for two Japanese men, add to pressure on governments that they may need to cooperate with Assad to defeat the group, the diplomat said, asking not to be named commenting on private communications.
The UN is working to negotiate a cease-fire in the Syrian city of Aleppo before the Moscow talks start to bind backers of the warring parties into committing to a political process.
Last year’s two rounds of peace talks in Geneva ended inconclusively after the government team refused to discuss a transitional administration that would replace Assad. Both sides blamed each other for the failure of the negotiations.
“We all understand that Assad won’t go and that the situation is in a dead end and that we need to form a government of national unity,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Even if participation is limited and the meeting doesn’t produce instant results, “it’s worth starting the first step,” she said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at email@example.com; Henry Meyer in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org; Sangwon Yoon in United Nations at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Riad Hamade at firstname.lastname@example.org Rodney Jefferson