DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — 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 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 that included "reasonable, patriotic opposition forces." Parliament's term expires in May 2016.
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 group and other "terrorists."
But most of Russia's airstrikes have focused on areas where IS militants do not have a major presence, and have enabled a multi-pronged government ground offensive backed by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah militia and Iran's Revolutionary Guard against other insurgent groups.
Assad told the Russian delegation that Moscow's entry into the conflict is "the writing of a new history" and will determine the future of the region and the world, Syria's state-run SANA news agency said.
It quoted Assad as saying the eradication of terrorist groups would lead to a political solution that "pleases the Syrian people and maintains Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."
After first questioning the presence of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and calling it a "phantom structure," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow is ready to aid the group in its fight against IS militants. The FSA is an amalgam of rebel groups, some headed by defectors from the Syrian army, and includes factions armed and trained by the CIA and others backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Two rebel members, including a commander of a CIA-backed group, said representatives of the Russian government have reached out to them to arrange for meetings. Akbik, the opposition politician, confirmed he had learned of such communications.
Jamil al-Saleh, leader of the CIA-backed Tajammu Alezzah, which has been targeted by Russian airstrikes since the start of the campaign in central Hama province, said a man introducing himself as a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry called him last week to ask for a meeting with Russian officials in a friendly country. Al-Saleh said the go-between said the meeting was to coordinate and prepare for the future.
Al-Saleh said he had rejected the Russian overture outright and informed his backers, apparently referring to the U.S and other governments in the region. Another rebel member, Abu Jad, who mediates for various FSA factions and is based in Turkey, said a similar contact was established in the early days of the airstrikes. He said he has been consulting with the factions but that he asked the go-between for an end to Russian strikes on FSA positions before such a meeting can be held.
FSA commander Lt. Col. Ahmed Saoud scoffed at the suggestion, saying "Russia must first admit that the regime of Assad must go." Saoud said he had only heard of such Russian overtures through the media.
"What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism," Saoud, a former Syrian army officer who defected and now leads the rebel 13th Division group, told the AP. He added that Russia was still striking FSA positions.
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.
One of the airstrikes killed 46 family members, including 32 children and 12 women who were all related to a local commander affiliated with the FSA in the village of Ghantou, in central Homs province. The second airstrike hit a nearby town, killing 13 civilians and a local FSA commander near a bakery. It was not clear if the commander was the target, the group said.
The human rights group called on Moscow to investigate the attacks.
Moscow has invited the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey to coordinate their air campaigns, which target IS militants, with Russia. But so far the U.S.-led coalition has refused to cooperate with Russia's operations beyond a basic agreement intended to prevent midair incidents. Jordan, a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has agreed to separately coordinate with Russia.
All previous peace efforts have foundered on the question of Assad's fate, with the Syrian government and its allies insisting that he remain in power to oversee a transition and the opposition and its backers insisting he must go in order to end the war.
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.
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.
A Saudi newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, meanwhile published Saturday what it said was a nine-point Russian proposal floated at a meeting Friday in Vienna with Kerry and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The report said the proposal included setting a joint targets list between the countries conducting airstrikes in Syria, a cease-fire between the FSA and government forces, and guarantees from Moscow that Assad will not run in the next election. The proposal also included a clause that would allow Russia to keep its military presence in Syria, with necessary U.N. resolutions, as a guarantee to the plan.
After he was briefed on the Vienna meeting, Abkik, the SNC member, described it as a "preliminary exchange of ideas" with a Russian focus on elections.
"What we know is that there has not been an agreement on the Assad knot," Abkik said.
In comments to Asharq al-Awsat published Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said the Kingdom insists "on an independent body to manage the transitional period in a way that guarantees the territorial integrity of Syria without Assad's presence; while Russia speaks of elections in search for a role for Assad."
El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.