Russia starts ceasefire negotiations with rebel groups in Syria
MOSCOW - Moscow said Wednesday it has started ceasefire negotiations with rebel groups in five Syrian provinces following a Moscow-Washington deal on a cessation of hostilities in the war-torn country.
The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that it has opened a coordination centre in Syria that is "already carrying out work with representatives of the groups in various settlements in the provinces of Hama, Homs, Latakia, Damascus and Deraa."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparent determination to seal a ceasefire in Syria shows Moscow is keen to cement its gains after saving Bashar al-Assad and forcing its way back to the heart of international diplomacy, analysts say.
When Moscow blindsided the West by launching a high-risk air campaign last September, Assad's army was crumbling and the Kremlin was being given the cold shoulder over the conflict in Ukraine.
Now, some five months and 8,000 bombing sorties over Syria later, regime forces backed up by Moscow's firepower have scored a string of victories and Washington is having to deal with Putin to try to solve the world's worst conflict.
"The conversation about a ceasefire comes exactly when Russia can talk from a position of strength after the significant military progress by Assad's forces," Maria Lipman, a Russian political analyst affiliated with George Washington University, said.
"There may be a lot of doubt about whether the ceasefire will hold... but nonetheless we can see in it a desire by Russia to move towards ending its operation and more importantly Russia's attempt to cement its position as a power on a level with the US."
Putin has pledged to do "whatever is necessary" to make sure Assad -- Moscow's longest-standing Arab ally -- respects the truce deal that he sealed with US President Barack Obama and on Wednesday went on an offensive with calls to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel.
Analysts say that the Kremlin strongman is keen to see fighting die down as concerns have spiralled recently of a dramatic escalation in the conflict, especially after fierce Assad opponent Turkey raised the possibility of a ground operation into Syria.
"If the Syrian army continues actively attacking along the Turkish border then the chances of direct intervention by Turkey get higher and higher, and if that happened that would be a completely different scale of conflict," Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian government-linked Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, said.
"From the Russian point of view, it is an issue of weighing the risks."
Meanwhile there are also concerns over how much further Assad's army can go even with Moscow's help and Russia may be looking to cash in its diplomatic chips now as it pushes the West to overturn sanctions over Ukraine that have pushed the country into recession.
"There is a need to change the psychological atmosphere," Russian Middle East analyst Grigory Melamedov said.
"The West didn't want to have anything to do with Russia just to be on the safe side and Moscow needs to change this and the mood of the West."
One potential problem for Moscow may be keeping a newly-emboldened Assad in check and making sure the regime in Damascus does not chance its luck too far.
Moscow on Wednesday appeared to clash with Assad over the strongman setting parliamentary elections for April, insisting that a vote should be held once the regime agrees a new constitution with its opponents.
That followed Russia publicly slapping down Assad's claim in an interview that he now wants to reinstate his authority over the whole of Syria.
"Russia has invested very seriously in this crisis, politically, diplomatically and now also militarily," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, told Kommersant newspaper last week.
"Therefore we would like Assad also to respond."