MOSCOW/BEIRUT – Shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Kremlin last week, he is ready to call for parliamentary and presidential elections if necessary, according to Russian lawmakers.
Moscow said Russian Foreign Minister 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.
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 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”.
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.
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.