ARUN RATH, HOST:
After the past four years, it's hard to imagine the words Syria and peace in the same sentence. The United Nations has struggled to establish even temporary truces in the brutal civil war. Now Russia is trying to play peacemaker. The warring parties have been invited to Moscow this month. But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports some opposition groups won't go to a country that has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Syrian opposition figures have good reason to be skeptical of the Russian diplomatic moves, says Reza Afshar, a former British diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition coalition.
REZA AFSHAR: A process that is initiated by the Russians, who are a party to the conflict - they provide weapons and advice to Assad regime, and they have taken an approach of cherry picking who they talk to and who the regime talks to - is obviously a process that is going to be concerning to some people, of course.
KELEMEN: The U.S. is not pressuring the opposition groups it supports to go to Moscow but suggesting that they should think about it so that Russia can't blame the opposition for the diplomatic stalemate. From the U.S. perspective, the opposition has nothing to lose by going, but National Defense University professor Murhaf Jouejati disagrees.
MURHAF JOUEJATI: If there are no guarantees as to the end state, that is a movement towards a transitional government with full executive powers without Assad, then there's really no reason to go. It will only be a repeat of the failed Geneva talks.
KELEMEN: Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, says the meetings set to begin January 26 in Moscow are meant to revive the Geneva peace process which first began in 2012.
VITALY CHURKIN: (Speaking Russian) (Through interpreter) Those who decide not to take part in this event will lose their standing in the entire negotiation process.
KELEMEN: That warning on the floor of the Security Council won't work with the Syrian opposition, says their advisor, Afshar.
AFSHAR: Well, that's typical Russian behavior, which is to try and bully and threaten people. But the reality is the Russians aren't in a position to decide who will take part in future negotiations. And this has been the whole problem with their approach.
KELEMEN: He says the Russian job has always been to deliver the regime to negotiating table. But the Syrian government only wants to talk about fighting terrorism, not discuss a political transition. So international diplomats - even U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura - aren't raising expectations about this month's meeting in Moscow.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA: We are hoping, more than expecting, that it will be a success.
KELEMEN: De Mistura describes Syria as the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, and he's been meeting U.S. and Russian officials and many others to find ways to resolve this.
DE MISTURA: They all agree that we need to do something to avoid that the Syrian conflict goes into a back burner and that movement towards some type of political solutions should take place this year.
KELEMEN: That optimism is not shared by Professor Jouejati, who points out that the U.N. envoy has had trouble getting the warring sides to agree to a temporary truce in the city of Aleppo. He says that's because Assad thinks he's winning, and the U.S. plans to train and equip 5,000 moderate rebels a year won't help level the playing field.
JOUEJATI: De Mistura has a lot of energy and a lot of good will, but I think the realities on the ground are quite difficult.
KELEMEN: And there are other complicating factors. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic state and the U.S.-led airstrikes against that group, both in Syria and Iraq, now top the U.S. agenda. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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