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Syria proposes cease-fire in Aleppo

BEIRUT — The Syrian government on Friday proposed a cease-fire with rebel forces in the city of Aleppo and said it was willing to exchange detainee lists with the opposition as a step toward a possible prisoner exchange.

The proposals — which Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said he had given to Russia — appeared to be an effort to show good faith days before an international peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war is set to be convened in Geneva.

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It remains unclear who will attend the conference, scheduled to open Wednesday. Although the Syrian government has accepted the invitation, it has suggested that the conference’s goal should be fighting “terrorism.” The West is increasingly concerned about extremist militants in the insurgency and their potential to become a threat outside Syria, but the government uses terrorism to describe the entire rebel movement that seeks to oust President Bashar Assad, so such statements suggest unwillingness to engage with legitimate grievances against his rule.

Many of the government’s enemies have deep reservations about the conference and the opposition’s exile leadership, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was meeting in Istanbul on Friday to decide whether to attend.

A decision Friday seemed unlikely, however, with dozens of members either refusing to attend the meeting altogether or withdrawing once they arrived, arguing that peace negotiations were against the founding principles of the coalition, a spokesman said.

“Geneva is not an easy decision,” said the spokesman, Khaled Saleh, as his group continued heated sessions in a resort hotel in Istanbul’s Silvri district, miles from the city center.

“We’re talking about 90 to 95 different groups trying to figure out the chances of success in Geneva, asking, ‘Why go?’ ” he added, referring to the coalition’s many factions.

Many of the Syrian government’s enemies have deep reservations about a peace conference next week.

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The approximately 44 members who refused to attend questioned the benefits of participating in Geneva and criticized Ahmad al-Jarba, the coalition president, for committing to the talks in September without the consent of coalition members, Saleh said.

The United States and other Western powers pressured the coalition’s leadership to attend the conference, seeing it as the best way to end a nearly 3-year-old war that has killed more than 120,000 people.

While few expect that the conference will fulfill its stated goal of creating a transitional government with full executive powers, its supporters hope that it will at least lead to increased humanitarian access and local cease-fires to make life easier for Syrian civilians.

Moallem provided few details on the government’s proposals. In a joint news conference in Moscow with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Moallem said Lavrov would make the contacts necessary to “establish a zero hour for a cease-fire and the cessation of military operations” in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

He also said that the Syrian government agreed “in principle” to exchange people held in Syrian prisons for those “kidnapped by armed groups” and that it was willing to trade lists and discuss how to carry out an exchange.

While leaders in Syria’s opposition did not respond immediately to the proposals, trust between the parties is nonexistent.

The government has violated cease-fires in the past and activists and rebel leaders have accused it of using local truces to impose surrender on rebel areas.

In Moscow, Moallem suggested that the government expected few key changes to come from the conference and would continue “to protect the ambitions of the Syrian people and carry out the directions of President Bashar al-Assad.”

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