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Assad Regime Agrees To Attend Peace Conference, Russia Says

Representatives of President Bashar Assad's regime have agreed "in principle" to attend an international peace conference aimed at ending more than two years of brutal warfare in Syria, Russia's foreign ministry said Friday.

But NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow that Russian diplomats also said it's not known just when such talks might start because it's unclear who would speak for the groups who have been fighting to overthrow the regime. Corey notes that "so far, the opposition has been resisting any peace plan that would allow Assad to stay in power, even on an interim basis."

Opposition groups are meeting in Istanbul to choose a new leader.

Still, The New York Times adds that Russian foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said in a statement that:

"We note with satisfaction that Damascus has confirmed its readiness in principle to participate in an international conference in the interest of the Syrians themselves finding a political path to a settlement of the conflict that has been devastating for the country and the region."

As the Times adds, "Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed during a meeting in Moscow earlier this month to pull together the peace conference, with Russia responsible for bringing the government of Bashar al-Assad to the table and the Americans focused on securing the participation of the Syrian opposition."

Since anti-Assad protests and fighting began in early 2011, an estimated 80,000 people — many of them civilians — have died in Syria.

Update at 10:20 a.m. ET. Opposition Consider Its Next Step.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering the Istanbul gathering of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and reports that:

"Opposition leaders admit to being under heavy pressure from their Western allies to attend the talks. But they remain divided over being part of any talks that don't set as a condition the regime's understanding that Assad must cede power to a transitional government. Outgoing SOC head Moaz al-Khatib offered a 16-point plan Thursday that opens with that very demand — and does not protect Assad and his security aides from potential prosecution later on.

"In addition, the coalition says it has no interest in attending talks as one of several opposition groups. If the international community recognizes the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the argument goes, then the SOC must be the sole opposition group at any talks.

"It remains an open question whether the coalition will even come to a yes-or-no decision this weekend on attending any future talks — some members suggest they may simply ask for more information and more time to consider the issue.

"The Istanbul meeting is also considering whether to expand the coalition's membership by as many as 30 or more seats, in an effort to respond to criticism that the Muslim Brotherhood is too heavily represented. The SOC is also looking for a new president to replace Khatib. Former opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun is among the names being mentioned."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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