MOSCOW — 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 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 tries to use its clout with Damascus to end almost five years of conflict in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has launched airstrikes against Assad’s opponents in Syria, called for the elections in an interview broadcast Saturday.
Assad visited Moscow last week on his first known trip outside Syria since the start the conflict that 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-Qaida-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.”
In a separate interview with Russian state television, Gavrilov said 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.”
Another Russian present at the talks said Assad was ready to take part in a presidential election if the Syrian people supported the idea, Russian news agency RIA reported.
“Assad said that if the Syrian people consider it necessary, he would not be against taking part in presidential elections,” Alexander Yushchenko, a parliamentary deputy, said.
Russian warplanes have been mounting airstrikes against insurgents in Syria since Sept. 30, a campaign Moscow says is aimed at Islamic State but which 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 in recent weeks 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. They see the Russian proposal for elections as a ruse to keep Assad in power.
Some of the rebels have received military support from states opposed to Assad, including the United States and Saudi Arabia. The rebels have been calling for more weapons to fight back against the Russian-backed offensives.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have agreed to increase support for Syria’s moderate opposition while seeking a political resolution of the four-year conflict, the U.S. State Department said after Secretary of State John Kerry met King Salman of Saudi Arabia Saturday.
Political progress needed
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.
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.
Lavrov telephoned Kerry on Saturday to discuss organizing talks between the Syrian government and opposition, the Russian foreign ministry said. It said the two men had spoken of the need to tap the potential of other countries in the region to push the political process forward.
John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, confirmed the conversation. “They focused on their shared pursuit of options to achieve a political transition and discussed the potential for future multilateral meetings on the topic,” Kirby said.
Lavrov, who also discussed Syria Saturday with his Iranian and Egyptian counterparts, said the Kremlin had told Assad during his Moscow visit that political progress was needed. Lavrov said the success of Assad’s army on the battlefield, with Russian air support, would consolidate his government, making it more interested in a political deal.