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BEIRUT -- Syrian opposition figures held meetings in the Saudi Arabian capital Friday to name a unified delegation that will attend peace talks with the government, while 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 beginning of a transition period.

"We have agreed with the other two branches" of the opposition "to send a united delegation to take part in direct negotiations in Geneva," Bassma Kodmani, a leader of the Higher Negotiating Committee, the main anti-Assad group, said early Friday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported.

The opposition didn't condition its participation in the upcoming United Nations-based negotiations on the departure of Assad from office, signaling a degree of flexibility. The issue has always been the sticking point in previous talks, deepening division among an already fragmented opposition.

Syrian opposition official Ahmad Ramadan said the opposition plans to name an 11-member delegation 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.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said 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 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.

Separately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he 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 critics 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." His comments, made Wednesday, were reported by Hurriyet newspaper and other media Friday.

The Syrian opposition's decision came at the end of a week in which Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, then held a summit with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss a peace settlement that includes a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections.

Putin also spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, as well as with the leaders of Qatar, Israel and Egypt.

Information for this article was contributed by Bassem Mrou, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press and by Henry Meyer of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 11/25/2017

Print Headline: Syrian opposition picks delegates; wiggle seen on Assad exit

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