Assad 'ready to stand in new election'

A Kurdish couple posing for a wedding shot in war-ravaged Kobani on Friday. The area is controlled by Kurdish-led forces. In the previous presidential election, Kurdish officials said they would not allow the Assad regime to open polling stations in
A Kurdish couple posing for a wedding shot in war-ravaged Kobani on Friday. The area is controlled by Kurdish-led forces. In the previous presidential election, Kurdish officials said they would not allow the Assad regime to open polling stations in regions under their control.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to eventually hold parliamentary and presidential elections, and is ready to run for president, said a Russian lawmaker.

"He is ready to conduct elections with the participation of all political forces who want Syria to prosper," Russian lawmaker Alexander Yushchenko said by telephone from Damascus yesterday, after meeting Mr Assad in the Syrian capital as part of a delegation.

Mr Assad said that he was ready to take part in the polls "if the people are not against it", Mr Yushchenko noted.

Speaking after the 11/2-hour meeting, which included other Russian lawmakers and various other figures, Mr Yushchenko said: "He is absolutely sure of himself."

Mr Yushchenko, who is a member of the Communist Party, stressed that Mr Assad would be ready to discuss constitutional reform and eventual elections only after Syria is "liberated" from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The announcement is expected to anger Western-backed moderate rebels, as well as Washington and its allies, who say there is no future for Mr Assad in post-conflict Syria.

Some of his opponents say he should step down during a transition, while others insist on his immediate resignation.

Russia, which is one of the main backers of the Assad regime, says that it is up to the Syrian people to decide his fate.

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was time to start preparing for elections in Syria. He also said Moscow was ready to give air support to Western-backed "patriotic" rebels fighting both the militants and Mr Assad.

The offer of help apparently represented a marked shift in Moscow's position.

Russia had previously used the word "patriotic" to describe only groups backing Mr Assad.

Representatives of Syria's Western-backed opposition rejected Russia's offer, saying that Moscow should first stop bombing moderate rebels.

The Russian delegation's meeting with Mr Assad in Damascus caps a week of intense diplomacy, which also saw President Vladimir Putin host Mr Assad at the Kremlin for a surprise summit last Tuesday.

Last Friday, after the unannounced talks, Mr Lavrov and United States Secretary of State John Kerry agreed in Vienna to explore new ways of trying to reach a political settlement.

Syria last held presidential elections in June last year. Mr Assad was re-elected for a seven-year term with 88.7 per cent of the vote. The poll was dismissed by the opposition and condemned internationally. The country last held parliamentary elections in May 2012, and it is, in theory, due to hold its next legislative vote next year.

It is unclear how the polls would be received by the Kurds, who have established three autonomous zones, or cantons, across northern Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011. In the previous presidential election, Kurdish officials said they would not allow the Assad regime to open polling stations in regions under their control.

Last week, the Kurds formalised control over an area at the Turkish border captured from ISIS in June, including the town of Tel Abyad, which was made part of the canton of Kobani.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Assad 'ready to stand in new election''. Print Edition | Subscribe