Russia leaves open possibility of Assad's departure
In an apparent effort to set the stage for transition talks, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman has said Moscow does not consider it a matter of principle that Syrian President Bashar Assad should stay in power.
Asked whether it was crucial for Moscow that Assad stays, Maria Zakharova said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station: "Absolutely not, we've never said that. What we did say is a regime change in Syria could become a local or even regional catastrophe."
She added: "Only the Syrian people can decide the president's fate."
Russia, alongside Iran, is Assad's strongest backer and has previously baulked at the West's suggestions that the Syrian president should be ousted.
In September, it began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria at Assad's request.
Yesterday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian news agencies that Moscow was aiming to host a round of talks between Syrian officials and opposition leaders next week.
Mr Bogdanov said that the Syrian government had agreed to participate, but it was unclear which opposition groups might come. He did not give a specific date for the proposed talks.
Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has defended its decision to use prisoners as human shields against regime and Russian air strikes.
Video footage posted over the weekend showed dozens of people being transported in cages around the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.
"Your women are our women," a teenage boy standing near one of the cages is filmed as saying. "If you want to kill my mother, you will kill them too."
Shaam News Network, a local opposition outlet, said local rebels had distributed 100 cages, each containing around seven people, to markets and other public spaces around the neighbourhood.
Hitting back at a hail of international criticism, the leader of one of the largest armed groups operating in Eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam, claimed the cages were being used to halt the bombing.
"The cages in Ghouta are not human shields to protect combatants, but rather have been placed among civilians to protect them," Mohammad Alloush posted on Facebook.