Syria's foreign minister says his country is ready to participate in peace talks in Geneva "without any foreign interference," nearly a week after the United Nations Security Council approved an international plan for a peace process to end the civil war in Syria.
The minister, Walid Moallem, was speaking Thursday in Beijing, where he met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. Moallem said the Syrian delegation will be ready as soon as it receives a list of opposition representatives to the peace talks.
Moallem did not explain what he meant by "foreign interference," but said the Damascus government hopes a dialogue can help establish a national unity government in Syria.
China is on the U.N. Security Council that unanimously approved the peace roadmap last week. Talks could begin as soon as January.
In Moscow, meanwhile, a senior diplomat said any cease-fire in Syria will not ease Russia's air campaign against the Islamic State group.
In fact, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, Russia will intensify its airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters if there is any lull in other military action in the civil war.
Bogdanov told Russia's Interfax news agency any cease-fire agreed by the parties involved in the Syrian conflict would have no effect on military action against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
Despite repeated assertions from Moscow that it is targeting Islamic State, there is widespread agreement that Russia's military campaign in Syria has been indiscriminate, bombing civilian areas and opposition forces supported by the West and hitting relatively few IS targets.
Such reports have come from opposition groups in Syria opposed to the Islamic State, non-governmental and humanitarian groups and the United States and its western partners in the anti-IS coalition campaign.
Last week, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin said his country has not yet used all of its military capabilities in Syria, and is ready to step up its involvement if necessary.
Russia also stands apart from the western coalition on the question of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's political future.
Opposition groups, the United States and its allies all say Assad must relinquish power. Russia has defended Assad and deflected any discussion of whether he must step down, or when.
Despite that impasse on the Assad issue, the United States and others say the international roadmap for Syria endorsed by the Security Council is a rare display of unity among major powers on a conflict that has claimed more than a quarter-million lives and uprooted millions of people -- more than half of Syria's entire pre-war population.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has declared last week's Security Council resolution "a milestone" in the effort to resolve the war in Syria, and he predicts diplomatic efforts will move forward rapidly in the New Year.
The resolution expresses support for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations. It calls for intra-Syrian peace talks and sets a target of six months for establishing a transitional government, followed by elections within 18 months.
Elsewhere Thursday, the Islamic State group seized a district previously held by Syrian government forces in the city of Deir el-Zour, expanding its presence in the contested region following heavy clashes with troops holed up inside, the extremist group and Syrian opposition activists told The Associated Press.
The IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency said the industrial district of fell to the group late Wednesday following daylong clashes that began with three successive suicide operations carried out by the militants on Syrian army outposts inside.
Aamaq said at least 38 Syrian troops were killed in the attack during which the group seized large amounts of ammunition and an armed personnel carrier from the government troops.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the IS capture of the district, saying at least 26 soldiers were killed.
Some material for this report came from AP.