BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian presidency said on Tuesday political initiatives could not work in Syria before terrorism had been wiped out, sticking by its long-held position on how to end its war with insurgents after its Russian allies called for new elections.
In a statement, the presidency said it was clarifying reports that President Bashar al-Assad had told a Russian delegation on Sunday he would be ready to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections called for by Moscow.
The Russian foreign minister, in an interview broadcast on Saturday, said Syrians needed to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections, part of an effort by Moscow to advance a political track towards ending the conflict.
The Syrian parliament’s four-year term is due to expire in May 2016 while Assad’s current seven-year presidential term runs until 2021.
Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran say he must be part of any transition and that the Syrian people will decide who governs them. The United States has said it could tolerate Assad during a short transition period, but that he would then have to exit the political stage.
Syria’s conflict began as a street uprising against four decades of Assad family rule and has descended into a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people, convulsed the Middle East and drawn in world powers.
The Syrian presidency statement said the state would welcome any political solution approved by the Syrian people that preserves national unity.
But it added that Assad had repeatedly said the defeat of what he called terrorism, his term for various insurgent groups fighting him, must come before any initiative.
“No initiative or ideas can be implemented, and their success guaranteed, before the elimination of terrorism and the restoration of security and stability to the whole country,” the statement said.
The statement did not state Assad’s position on the idea of holding elections.
Syria describes all the insurgents as terrorists, including jihadist groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State, and other factions including Islamist groups and those fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Russia has been mounting air strikes in Syria in support of the Syrian military since Sept. 30.
A Russian lawmaker who met Assad on Sunday as part of a delegation told Reuters the Syrian leader’s priority was to defeat terrorists before holding elections.
That lawmaker and another also said Assad told them he would be willing to hold parliamentary and presidential elections if necessary.
A French lawmaker visiting Damascus told reporters on Tuesday that the Syrian parliament was ready to hold elections as planned. “There will be elections next year, that is what the president of the parliament confirmed to us,” Jean-Frédéric Poisson said after meeting Syrian parliamentarians, adding that the French group was also due to meet Assad.
Poisson and two other French lawmakers were not representing the French government, which opposes rapprochement with Assad. Groups of French and other European MPs have made similar trips this year.
Syria’s last presidential election was in June 2014. The vote was won overwhelmingly by Assad for a new seven-year term but dismissed as a sham by opponents with much of the country at war and millions forced from their homes.
Britain’s Special Representative for Syria on Tuesday dismissed the idea that Syria would hold fair elections. When asked in a Twitter discussion why foreign countries should not just let the Syrian people decide, Gareth Bayley said:
“Because Assad won’t let the Syrian people choose. Last election was ridiculously rigged.”
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.
The United Arab Emirates and Egypt discussed Syria in a bilateral meeting on Tuesday. Egypt hosts some Syrian opposition figures and the UAE is one of the strongest regional opponents of Assad.
The UAE’s state news agency WAM said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the two discussed the Syrian crisis and the importance of finding political solutions that “guaranteed the security and protection of a unified Syria and preserving its national institutions”.
Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich