Syria dismisses foreign role in Russian-led peace talks
Syrian state-run TV said the government is prepared to take part in peace talks hosted by Russia next month, but the unnamed foreign ministry official it cited suggested the scope of the negotiations would be limited to "preliminary" talks meant to pave the way for a conference held in Syria itself.
The official was quoted as saying the Syrian government was "ready to participate in preparatory, advisory meetings in Moscow" that would "answer the aspirations of Syrians to find an exit from the crisis".
Russia's foreign ministry had on Christmas Day said it hoped to host peace talks in January between the Assad regime and its fractured opposition. The nearly four-year conflict has claimed over 200,000 lives, displaced a third of Syria's population and nurtured an extremist group, the Islamic State, which now rules over vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Russia is a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and it is unclear whether any of the country's opposition groups are willing to attend the talks.
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition has maintained that any negotiated settlement must include the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, a demand rejected by Assad's government.
Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, has said the first stage of talks would include members of both the government-tolerated internal opposition and opposition groups based abroad. In the next stage, they would be joined by Syrian government representatives.
But the Syrian foreign ministry official quoted on state-run television suggested the Moscow talks were only meant to pave the way for a "dialogue conference" to be held in Syria.
"The preliminary, consultative meetings in Moscow are aimed at finding agreement on convening a dialogue conference between the Syrians themselves, without any foreign intervention," the official said.
It is unclear whether Syria's fractured opposition leaders in exile, or armed rebels on the ground, would attend a conference hosted in a government-controlled area of the country.
Meanwhile, at least 45 civilians were killed and some 175 wounded when aircraft bombed a northern Syrian city controlled by Isis, as the Bashar al-Assad government stepped up air raids, residents and a monitoring group said on Friday.
Helicopters and war planes dropped barrel bombs - steel drums full of shrapnel and explosives - on residential and industrial areas in the city of al Bab and neighbouring Qabaseen, northeast of Aleppo, on Thursday and overnight, locals said.
"People were going about scraping a living and there were no armed groups in the market, only poor people. Why is Assad killing us? May God bring vengeance on him," said a resident of Qabaseen and a volunteer with the local civil defence group via Skype.
Syrian state media did not report the strikes on al Bab, a city of around 100,000 people that has been a target of heavy government strikes since the start of the US-led military campaign against Isis in Syria in late September.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 37 civilians were killed. The UK-based group, which gathers information from a variety of sources, said there had been an increase in air raids by the Syrian military in rebel-held areas in the last three days.
It said at least 110 civilians had been killed in more than 470 air strikes on rebel-held areas in Syria in the last 72 hours, including towns in insurgent-held eastern suburbs of the capital Damascus, where the army has stepped up a two-year campaign to retake the area.
Eleven civilians, mostly women and children, were killed by loyalist snipers when trying to leave a besieged rebel-held neighbourhood in the rural outskirts of Damascus, the Observatory said.
"There have been unprecedented air raids across Syria in the last three days where the regime seeks to make gains on the ground to improve its negotiating stance in future political talks," said an Observatory spokesman.