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Push for Syrian peace talks gains steam

Russia is working to convene talks, and the U.N. hopes to stop the fighting in Aleppo.

BEIRUT - The search for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war is gaining steam, as President Bashar Assad's forces feel increasingly squeezed on the battlefield and Islamic extremist groups proliferate across the region.

Russia, Assad's chief international ally, is trying to convene peace talks in Moscow between Syrian government representatives and the mainstream opposition on how to move toward a political transition. Its diplomats have been shuttling between various sides of the conflict to try to arrange talks without preconditions.

Elsewhere, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is attempting to decrease the level of carnage in Syria through a plan that calls for "freezing the conflict" in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as a building block for a wider solution to the war.

So far, there is little to suggest that either of those plans has a real chance of success. But analysts say there is a greater chance now for a settlement as a result of recent government losses in the north and south as well as growing resentment toward Assad among his traditional supporters - particularly after the mass killings of soldiers by militants.

Sustained losses, they say, may open a window of opportunity for more flexibility for a peaceful transition possibly involving Assad's eventual departure.

"The regime is increasingly stretched, militarily and financially, and so its refusal to engage politically with its own constituencies, let alone its adversaries, threatens it," wrote Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in the pan Arab daily Al-Hayat. "By insisting on an exclusively military approach, it takes itself closer to the point where it has no political or social cushion domestically."

The attempts to hold a peace conference also come as Russia and Iran, Syria's other main ally, are under pressure as a result of plunging oil prices. Both countries have given Assad billions of dollars in credit since the crisis began and might not want to spend more on the costly war.

It is not yet clear who would take part in talks in Moscow. The main Western-backed Syrian opposition does not trust Russia and maintains that any negotiated settlement must be based on the Geneva communication platform, which states that there should be a political transition in Syria toward democracy by the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

"We are not going to accept something that is just superficial; it has to be genuine, deep-rooted transition toward democracy," said Monzer Akbik, a senior official with the mainstream opposition Syrian National Coalition, the political wing of the Free Syrian Army.

Nevertheless, the communique, a road map agreed on by major powers in June 2012, is vague and leaves open the fate of Assad. Two rounds of peace talks between government and opposition representatives in Switzerland in early 2014 ended in failure.