Russia says Syria will attend talks

Organizers hope to hold meeting early next month

BEIRUT – Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has agreed “in principle” to participate in a U.S.- and Russian-sponsored peace conference aimed at ending the violence in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday.

Moscow learned of the decision to take part during a recent visit by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters in the Russian capital. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.

Organizers hope to hold the peace talks early next month in Geneva. Adding urgency to the matter is the escalating violence in Syria and the prospect of the conflict increasingly spilling into neighboring nations such as Lebanon, where gun battles in Tripoli erupted this week between pro- and anti-Assad factions.

Syria’s decision to participate in the conference had been widely expected. Russia, a major force behind the peace initiative, is a crucial ally of the Assad government. Syria cannot afford to alienate Russia, which has scuttled several anti-Assad resolutions in the United Nations.

The peace initiative was unveiled this month during a meeting in Moscow between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Their governments have labeled the plan an extremely urgent effort to end the civil war in Syria.

Any negotiations resulting from the Geneva meeting would be the first face-to-face talks between the Syrian opposition and the government.

But many obstacles remain before the conference comes together and the two warring sides meet.

Although the Syrian government is generally unified, the opposition is not. The anti-Assad bloc is a fractured alliance of exiled activists, dissidents inside the country, armed rebels and others. The bloc is deeply divided about how to proceed.

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