Syrian President Bashar Assad is willing to run in an early presidential election, hold parliamentary elections and discuss constitutional changes, but only after the defeat of "terrorist" groups, Russian lawmakers said after meeting with the Syrian leader on Sunday.
The meeting came as Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were discussing new ideas for a political transition to end Syria's nearly five-year civil war, which has killed 250,000 people and displaced half the country's population.
The Western-backed Syrian opposition and other insurgent groups have refused to back any plan that does not include Assad's exit from power, and were unlikely to view any elections held by his government as legitimate. The Syrian government considers the entire armed opposition to be "terrorists." "This is all political equivocation," Munzer Akbik, a member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, told The Associated Press. "There is no sense in talking about elections now before a real transition of power."
Russian lawmaker Alexander Yushchenko told the Tass news agency that Assad is ready to hold parliamentary elections "on the basis of all political forces that want Syria's prosperity." He said Assad is also ready to discuss constitutional reform and, if necessary, hold presidential elections, but only "after the victory over terrorism." Assad won the re-election more than a year ago by a landslide in a vote dismissed as a sham by his opponents. Voting did not take place in areas controlled by the opposition, excluding millions of voters. Assad's term expires in 2021. Sergei Gavrilov, another Russian lawmaker, told Tass that Assad was ready to hold parliamentary elections but "the first aim is the struggle with and victory over terrorism."
The latest push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict comes in the wake of Russia's military intervention, which Moscow says is aimed at helping the Assad government defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other groups. But most of Russia's airstrikes have focused on areas where ISIS militants do not have a major presence, and have enabled a multi-pronged government ground offensive backed by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard against other insurgent groups.
On Sunday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said at least two airstrikes on Oct. 15, described by residents as Russian, killed 59 civilians, including 33 children. The human rights group called on Moscow to investigate the attacks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia Saturday to meet with King Salman and other officials. The two sides "reiterated the need for a transition away" from Assad and pledged to continue support for the moderate Syrian opposition. The conflict began with a wave of mostly peaceful protests in 2011 against the Assad family's four-decade rule, and only escalated into a full-blown civil war when his forces launched a bloody crackdown on dissent, which has led to the death of tens of thousands and to the misplacement of millions. At least 250,000 people have been killed since the Syria conflict began in 2011, according to U.N. figures, with 7.6 million internally displaced and over 4 million having fled to nearby countries.