Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s priority is to defeat “terrorists” before holding elections but he is ready to call parliamentary and presidential polls if necessary, a Russian lawmaker who met him on Sunday said.
The remarks are a first indication of Assad’s response to a call by his Russian allies for new presidential and parliamentary elections, as Moscow uses its clout with Damascus to try to end almost five years of conflict in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has launched air strikes against Assad’s opponents in Syria, called for the elections in an interview broadcast on Saturday.
Moscow said Lavrov discussed Syria with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry twice at the weekend, and spoke to his Iranian and Egyptian counterparts on Saturday. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in Cairo that international talks had yielded some progress though more consultations were needed.
Assad’s opponents, however, are wary of Russia’s motives, suspecting it of trying to prop up Assad and look after its own national interests in the Middle East as its warplanes support offensives against rebels on the ground.
Assad visited Moscow last week on his first known trip outside Syria since the start of the conflict, which is estimated to have killed 250,000 people.
The Syrian state news agency SANA made no mention of elections in its account of Assad’s meeting on Sunday with a visiting Russian delegation. SANA said Assad told the visitors that “the elimination of terrorist groups” would lead to the political solution sought by both Syria and Russia.
Asked after the meeting whether Assad was ready for early elections, Russian parliamentary deputy Sergey Gavrilov told Reuters his impression was that “the first aim (of Assad is) the struggle with and victory over … terrorism, and after that the elections – parliamentary and president elections”.
Damascus views all the groups fighting it as terrorists.
Insurgents operating in Syria include Islamic State, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, other jihadists, and groups with a nationalist agenda seen as moderate by Assad’s foreign opponents and fighting under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army”.
Gavrilov also told Russian state television that Assad was “ready for broad dialogue with all responsible political forces that care about Syria. He is ready for parliamentary elections, constitutional reform, presidential elections if necessary”.
Syria’s last presidential election was in June, 2014. The vote was won overwhelmingly by Assad but dismissed as a sham by opponents, with much of the country at war and millions forced from their homes.
Assad is believed to control a quarter or less of Syrian territory, but the bulk of people still in the country are in the main cities of western Syria that he holds.
Another Russian parliamentary deputy present at Sunday’s talks, Alexander Yushchenko, said Assad was ready to take part in a presidential election “if the Syrian people consider it necessary”, Russian news agency RIA reported.
Russian warplanes have been mounting air strikes against insurgents in Syria since Sept. 30. Moscow says the campaign is aimed at Islamic State, but it has mostly struck areas of western Syria held by other rebels battling to topple Assad.
With Russian air support, the Syrian army backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iranian fighters and other militias is waging ground offensives in areas of western Syria that are crucial to the survival of the Damascus-based state.
Rebels attacked by Russian warplanes have poured scorn on Moscow’s proposals, including the idea that Moscow would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels.
Some of the rebels have received military support from countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia and have called for more weapons to hit back.
The U.S State Department said after Kerry met King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Saturday that Washington and Riyadh had agreed to increase support for Syria’s moderate opposition while seeking a political resolution.
In Cairo, Jubeir reiterated the Saudi view that Assad can have no role in Syria’s future.
“I believe that there has been some progress and positions have moved closer on finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, but I cannot say that we have reached an agreement. We still need more consultations … to reach this point,” he told a news conference after meeting Egypt’s foreign minister.
The Russian Foreign Ministry gave few details of the phone conversation between Lavrov and Kerry on Sunday, following a discussion by phone a day earlier.
Moscow says Assad must be part of any transition and that the Syrian people will decide who rules them. Washington has said it could tolerate Assad during a short transition period, but that he would then have to exit the political stage.
(Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Lin Noueihed and Ahmed Aboulenein in Cairo,; Editing by Timothy Heritage)
SOURCE: ALEXANDER WINNING AND TOM PERRY