MOSCOW Russia hosted Syrian and Iranian delegations for separate rounds of talks on Monday in a renewed diplomatic push for a Syrian peace conference in which Moscow says Tehran must play a role.
President Vladimir Putin, who has stepped up his personal involvement on the Syrian issue, also called Iran's president to discuss the conflict as well as efforts to end the dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Moscow wants to show it still has weight in the Middle East and has been emboldened by its success in helping to broker a deal under which Syria will destroy its chemical weapons, but Washington is wary of letting Iran join any peace conference.
"We regard Iran as a very important partner in all Middle Eastern affairs," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying at the start of talks with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
The meeting "will give us an opportunity to jointly look at how developments in and around Syria unfold," Bogdanov said.
In further evidence of Russia's diplomatic offensive, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian opposition sources both confirmed that Bogdanov had recently held talks in Istanbul with leaders of the opposition National Coalition.
The Syrian sources said the discussions had included opening humanitarian corridors to besieged rebel-held areas in Syria as well as the planned Geneva peace conference.
Russia, which strongly backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States announced back in May they would try to bring Syria's government and opposition together in such a conference, but a date has so far proved elusive.
Lavrov said it could happen before the end of the year.
"(U.S. Secretary of State John) Kerry and I promised to do all we can to make that happen," Lavrov told Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, on Monday, referring to a telephone conversation the two men had on Sunday.
But Lavrov added that the timing of the conference would "depend on how well our Western partners do their homework of persuading the opposition to reject preconditions".
The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, agreed last week to attend the Geneva conference but insisted there could be no future role for Assad in Syria.
Russia, which has been Assad's most powerful diplomatic backer during the conflict, sending arms and blocking Western efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on his government, says his exit from power cannot be a precondition for a peace process.
Lavrov also said on Monday that leaders of the National Coalition were considering an invitation to travel to Moscow for the first time for talks aimed at preparing for the conference.
"They did not refuse to come to Moscow, they are studying our invitation," Lavrov told a news conference.
However, Syrian opposition sources said coalition head Ahmad Jarba had decided on Sunday against further talks proposed by Russia for November 25, citing a scheduling conflict. Afaq Ahmad, an independent opposition figure, said Saudi Arabia - a staunch opponent of Assad - had probably pressured Jarba not to attend.
As well as the Iranian diplomats, a Syrian government delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was also in Moscow for talks on Monday, but there was no immediate word on how Russia's talks with either of the teams had gone.
Separately, Syria's envoy to Russia, Ambassador Riad Haddad, was quoted on Monday as saying insufficient funding and unspecified actions by the militants fighting to oust Assad were hampering Damascus' chemical disarmament drive.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Alexei Anishchuk and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Gareth Jones)