Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, greets Syrian Deputy Foreign… (Mikhail Metzel / Associated…)
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 Damascus.
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. Damascus cannot afford to alienate Moscow, 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 F. 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.
Though 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. No single voice speaks for the opposition, which is deeply divided about how to proceed.
Assad's willingness to send a delegation to Geneva would seem to put more pressure on the opposition to attend. But significant segments of the anti-Assad side are wary about, if not hostile to, the international initiative.
The U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, a largely exile-based opposition group, has been meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, in a bid to hammer out a position.
Many in the opposition have said the talks must lead to Assad's ouster, a position backed by Washington. But the Syrian government and Russia have said that Assad's removal from office cannot be a precondition for talks. Assad has said he has no intention of resigning and plans to be a candidate in elections scheduled for next year.
How the starkly contrasting viewpoints can be reconciled in Geneva remains unclear.
Lukashevich, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the signs coming from the U.S.-backed opposition about the Geneva session so far "have not been encouraging."
The aim of the conference is to create a transitional government that could lead to a cessation of hostilities and lay the groundwork for free and probably internationally supervised elections in Syria. The plan is based on a U.N.-backed accord hammered out in Geneva last year. Russia, the United States, China and other nations signed on to it.
But the plan received little attention for months, as the death toll mounted in Syria and more and more of the country was reduced to rubble. With diplomacy at an impasse, U.S. and Russian officials revived the peace framework and are pushing hard for its implementation, despite the profound mistrust between the warring factions.
More than two years of fighting have left in excess of 80,000 people dead and almost a quarter of the population uprooted from their homes, according to the United Nations.