Syria opposition chief to visit Russia on Tuesday

Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba is to visit Moscow on Tuesday at the invitation of Russian authorities, a top aide told AFP on the sidelines of peace talks in Geneva.

"Mr. Jarba has accepted the Russian invitation and will go to Moscow on February 4," Monzer Aqbiq, head advisor to the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said on Thursday.

The coalition had on Wednesday confirmed to AFP that it planned to hold talks with Russia.

Russia was already a key ally of the Damascus regime long before Syria's civil war broke out in 2011, enjoying strong trade ties and having a key Mediterranean naval base in the country.

With the opposition backed strongly by the United States, an agreement between Washington and Moscow last year paved the way for the Geneva peace talks which mark the first time Syria's two sides have sat down since the war erupted.

Russia had earlier invited Jarba to Moscow for a visit which would have coincided with a trip by representatives from President Bashar al-Assad's government.

At the time, Jarba's staff said that he was interested in travelling there, but that was unable to do so due to prior commitments.

Mindful of Russia's clout, the opposition have sought to keep a line open to Moscow from the outset.

"Members of the opposition for the past almost three years have been speaking to Russian officials both formally and informally," Rafif Jouejati, a coalition spokeswoman, told AFP on Wednesday.

Speaking last week in Switzerland, Jarba said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told him the Kremlin's position on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not set in stone.

Jouejati underlined that.

"I think certainly there has been an easing in the Russian position on Syria. Russian officials have repeatedly said that they are not wedded to Assad," she said.

The goal of the current Geneva talks, into their sixth day on Thursday, is to finally implement calls for a political transition in Syria made at an international summit in the Swiss city in 2012.

The opposition wants Assad's departure to be assured from the start, but the regime insists that cannot be made a precondition for political change.