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As the talks opened in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, reminded negotiators that a whole generation of Syrian children – more than 3.5 million under the age of five – had never experienced anything but war. De Mistura will brief the UN security council meeting in New York in a closed session from Geneva and his aides were making no initial response to the Russian move.

Western governments, along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have repeatedly accused Putin of deploying his air force not to bomb Isis targets but rebel forces including the moderate Free Syrian army, often hitting schools and hospitals. Earlier this month, Nato’s military commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, accused Putin of “deliberately weaponising” the refugee crisis from Syria in an attempt to overwhelm Europe.

Muslat, meanwhile, has denied the Russian intervention has seriously weakened the opposition’s negotiating hand. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “We are closer to a solution now more than ever. We have been patient and we hope to see something in the coming few days, at least some light at the end of the tunnel that says at this, or that, time there will be something for the Syrians.

“Before, we saw all doors closed; now we see some doors open. We want to see an end to the nightmare. We want to see it today and before tomorrow. The future of Syria should be decided here and decided very soon.”

He claimed the shaky two-week ceasefire and the start of humanitarian convoys was changing the atmosphere inside Syria. But in a sign of how perilous the talks are likely to become, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, set out the government’s determination to keep Assad’s future out of the talks. “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency … Bashar al-Assad is a red line.”

Muslat countered: “The political transition process has to be without Assad. You do not want to keep a murderer who has killed half a million people and destroyed a country. There is no place for Assad in Syria. He is not acceptable to the Syrian people.”

Significantly, he added that it might be possible for Assad to remain for a period if there was a clear guarantee that he would stand down. “At the least, we have to see something that Assad will go and we do not want to hear from Russia that nobody should discuss the future of Assad.”

He stressed Assad “could not be a member of any transitional governing body”.