BEIRUT — Syrian opposition figures held meetings in the Saudi Arabian capital on Friday to name a unified delegation that will attend peace talks with the government as a Russian official said the issue of Syrian President Bashar Assad running for office in the future is still under discussion.
The meetings in Riyadh came a day after Syrian opposition representatives called for direct and unconditional negotiations with the Syrian government over the more than 6-year civil war that would lead to the launch of a transition period.
The opposition didn’t condition its participation in upcoming U.N.-based negotiations on the departure of President Bashar Assad from office, signaling a degree of flexibility. The issue has always been the sticking point in previous rounds of talks, deepening division among an already fragmented opposition.
Syrian opposition official Ahmad Ramadan said the opposition will likely name an 11-member delegation later Friday that will lead talks with the government in Geneva next week.
The delegation will include members of the Saudi-based opposition as well as groups based in Egypt and Russia.
“We have agreed with groups based here in Riyadh as well as those in Cairo and Moscow to form a unified delegation to participate in the direct negotiations in Geneva in the coming few days,” leading opposition figure Basma Kodmani told reporters in Riyadh late Thursday.
In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Friday that the issue of Assad running for office in the future is still under discussion. Assad was elected for a seven-year term in 2014.
Asked about a possibility of an early presidential election in Syria and Assad running in it, Bogdanov said in an interview with RIA Novosti: “This is under the discussion now, the work is ongoing. There are no results yet.”
Russia has always said that the fate of Assad will be decided by the Syrian people while Syrian government officials have said they will not give the opposition in peace talks what they failed to achieve by war.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not ruled out possible contact with Assad in a sign that his stance may be softening toward the Syrian leader. Erdogan has been one of Assad’s harshest leaders and has been calling on him to step down since the early days of the conflict that began in March 2011.
Responding to a question about a possible contact or cooperation with Assad in view of both leaders’ opposition to Syrian Kurdish fighters, Erdogan told journalists: “The political doors are always open until the last minute.”
Erdogan was speaking on board his plane on his return from a trilateral meeting with Russia and Iran to promote a peaceful settlement in Syria that took place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday.
His comments were reported by Hurriyet newspaper and other media on Friday.
Turkey has strongly opposed Assad and has spoken against him having any future role in Syria.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.