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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

BEIRUT — The Syrian government Friday said it had presented plans to its Russian allies for a cease-fire in the northern city of Aleppo and an exchange of prisoners with the opposition in advance of peace talks next week in Switzerland.

The announcement in Moscow by Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, appeared to be a significant development in advance of possibly landmark peace talks slated to begin Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux.

The proposals would also seem to put the government of President Bashar Assad — whom the opposition has been fighting to topple — at the center of the cease-fire plan.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, this week called on both sides in the protracted conflict to work toward a limited cease-fire, a prisoner exchange and improved access for humanitarian aid in advance of next week’s meeting.

On Friday, the Syrian government also said it was willing to step up efforts to bolster the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but blamed rebels for opening fire earlier this week on an aid convoy destined for needy civilians trapped in the besieged southern Damascus district of Yarmouk.

The Syrian government’s new proposal, in coordination with its Russian ally, would seem to be an effort by Damascus and its international supporters to take the initiative in the run-up to next week’s long-anticipated talks, strongly endorsed by Washington and Moscow. The Switzerland session would be the first time that Syrian government officials have met with representatives of the exile-based opposition coalition supported by the United States and its allies.

The Syrian offer — made at a joint news conference in Moscow by the foreign ministers of Syria and Russia — would seem to put the onus on the U.S.-backed opposition to respond. But the opposition is deeply fragmented and divided about how to proceed at what appears to be a critical juncture in the conflict.

The main, U.S.-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, was meeting in Istanbul on Friday and was expected to decide whether it will attend the peace talks. U.S. officials have strongly urged the group to take part. On Thursday, Kerry called an impromptu press conference in Washington intended in part to persuade the coalition to send representatives to the Switzerland talks.