There was no immediate response from president Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, whose attendance at the talks due to start next Wednesday in Switzerland remains in doubt – prompting a last-minute appeal from the United States.
On a visit to Moscow yesterday, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem said he had given Russian officials a plan for a truce in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, and said the government was ready to exchange lists of prisoners to be swapped.
Moscow and Washington, respectively for and against Mr Assad, have urged both parties to make concessions – including ceasefires, access for aid and prisoner exchanges – to build confidence before the conference.
There is little sign of coherent negotiating positions or of violence abating. Rebels are fighting each other in battles involving Islamist militants whose influence has cooled Western support for the uprising.
Mr Assad’s forces, once under pressure, have recovered and have been bolstered by Russian arms and supplies, Western military sources have said this week.
Most of the rebel forces fighting inside Syria have dismissed the negotiations, known as Geneva-2, and exiled opposition leaders backed by Western and Arab powers met in Turkey to decide whether to take part.
The US, the co-sponsor with Russia, issued an 11th-hour appeal to Mr Assad’s opponents to participate in the first direct peace negotiations in nearly three years to end a civil war that has killed more than 100,000, driven millions from their homes and inflamed tensions in the region and beyond.
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a fractious 120-member body, has already seen some of its members declare their hostility to joining the talks at Montreux. Many fear it will undermine their credibility at home to engage in a process they see as having little chance of forcing Mr Assad to step down.
US secretary of state John Kerry said late on Thursday: “The Geneva peace conference is not the end but rather the beginning, the launch of a process… that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution.”
Mr Kerry also poured scorn on “revisionism” from Damascus, which has made clear it rejects rebel and Western demands that Mr Assad makes way for a transitional leadership and has suggested talks focus on cooperation against “terrorism” – code for the Islamists, including al-Qaeda, that dominate on the frontline.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday criticised the Syrian opposition for its delay in agreeing to take part. He said: “It worries us very much that some kind of game is being played.”
Mr Moualem said the proposals from Syria could ease the conflict: “We would like this to serve as an example to other towns,” he said of the ceasefire plan for Aleppo.