President Bashar al-Assad has said he is willing to hold early presidential elections, as sharp differences over his fate hamper efforts to resolve Syria s five-year civil war.
The opposition has long demanded 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 Thursday, 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,” Assad told RIA Novosti. Assad was re-elected with nearly 90 percent 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. Assad s future including whether he would be allowed to run in those elections remains controversial.
The White House spokesman Josh Earnest said 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 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 2017. Syria s government, however, is preparing for regularly-scheduled parliamentary elections next
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 interview with RIA Novosti, part of which had been released a day earlier, Assad said the submissions for this election were “the largest in terms of the number of candidates”. Although Assad said Syrians both at home and abroad would be able to vote in future presidential elections, there has been no talk of absentee voting for the April polls. Nearly five million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began, and millions more are displaced internally. More than 270,000 people have lost their lives.
A fragile ceasefire between Damascus and non-jihadist rebels has brought a relative lull in the fighting since February 27, despite continued accusations of violations on both sides. The drop in violence has allowed for an increase in humanitarian aid deliveries, though challenges in reaching besieged towns remain. The United Nations and its partners in Syria have delivered aid to 399,452 people in besieged or hard-to-reach areas since the start of the year, according to Jan Egeland, head of a UN-backed humanitarian taskforce. But planned aid convoys to several areas in Syria had been delayed this week, and aid agencies were facing difficulties in bringing much-needed medical supplies into besieged areas, he said.
This week “was not a good week for us in Syria… It s basically a bit frustrating now,” Egeland told reporters in Geneva. On Thursday, government air strikes killed at least 23 people including four children in a rebel bastion east of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Thirteen civilians and two police officers were among the dead in Deir Al-Assafir, a town in the Eastern Ghouta opposition stronghold, it said. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman called it “the largest ceasefire violation in Eastern Ghouta.”
Elsewhere, air strikes carried out by unidentified planes killed 21 members of the Islamic State group in Al-Husseiniyah, southwest of Deir Ezzor city, the Observatory said. It added that a drone strike likely by the US-led anti-IS coalition killed Abu al-Hija, a high-ranking Tunisian commander, near the jihadists de facto capital Raqa on Wednesday. Last week, US forces killed IS deputy leader Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli. Earlier this month one of the group s most notorious commanders, Omar al-Shishani, also died.