Assad open to early polls but his future still an issue

The remains of a statue in a debris-strewn street in the ancient city of Palmyra on Thursday. The city was recaptured by government troops on Sunday. Mr Assad (below) said he would consider ending his current seven-year term early if that was what Sy
The remains of a statue in a debris-strewn street in the ancient city of Palmyra on Thursday. The city was recaptured by government troops on Sunday. Mr Assad said he would consider ending his current seven-year term early if that was what Syrians wanted. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The remains of a statue in a debris-strewn street in the ancient city of Palmyra on Thursday. The city was recaptured by government troops on Sunday. Mr Assad (below) said he would consider ending his current seven-year term early if that was what Sy
The remains of a statue in a debris-strewn street in the ancient city of Palmyra on Thursday. The city was recaptured by government troops on Sunday. Mr Assad (above) said he would consider ending his current seven-year term early if that was what Syrians wanted.

Sharp divide, including whether Syrian leader can contest, holding up resolution of civil war

DAMASCUS • President Bashar al-Assad has said he is willing to hold early presidential elections, but sharp differences over his future are still hampering efforts to resolve Syria's five-year civil war.

The opposition has long demanded that Mr Assad step down at the beginning of any transitional period, but the regime says any talk of his removal is a "red line".

In comments to Russian state media published on Thursday, Mr Assad said he would consider ending his current seven-year term early if that was what Syrians wanted.

"Is there popular will to hold early presidential elections? If there is, I don't have a problem with it," Mr Assad told RIA Novosti.

He was re-elected with nearly 90 per cent of the vote in a June 2014 ballot that the opposition and the West decried as a "farce".

His mandate is set to end in 2021, but a peace process backed by world powers envisages UN-monitored parliamentary and presidential elections within the next 18 months.

Mr Assad's future - including whether he would be allowed to run in those elections - remains controversial.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr Assad's participation in a future government in Syria "would be a non-starter".

Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 with popular protests calling for Mr Assad's departure and has since evolved into a full-blown civil war, drawing in regional powers.

The latest global effort to end the bloodshed has called for the regime and opposition to come together in a new transitional government.

That body would write a new Constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections by September next year.

Syria's government, however, is preparing for regularly scheduled parliamentary elections next month.

Parliamentary hopefuls have already submitted their candidacies for the April 13 vote as the current legislature's four-year term comes to an end.

In the interview with RIA Novosti, Mr Assad said the submissions for this election were "the largest in terms of the number of candidates".

Nearly five million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began, and millions more are displaced internally. More than 270,000 people have died.

A ceasefire between Damascus and opposition forces has brought a relative lull in the fighting since Feb 27, despite accusations of violations on both sides.

On Thursday, government air strikes killed at least 33 people, including nine women and 12 children, in a rebel bastion east of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The United States said it was appalled by the strikes.

"We condemn in the strongest terms any such attacks directed at civilians," US State Department spokesman John Kirby added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Assad open to early polls but his future still an issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe