By Parisa Hafezi and Sylvia Westall
Iran signalled on Friday it backed a six-month transition period in Syria followed by elections to decide Bashar al-Assad’s fate, a proposal floated at peace talks as a concession but which the president’s foes rejected as a trick to keep him in power.
Sources who described the Iranian proposal said it amounted to Assad’s closest ally dropping its insistence on him remaining in office.
But Assad’s enemies say a new election would keep him in power unless other steps were taken to remove him. His government held an election as recently as last year, which he easily won. His opponents have always rejected any proposal for a transition unless he is removed.
Iranian officials attended international peace talks on Syria for the first time on Friday in Vienna, a month after the balance of power in the 4-year-old civil war shifted in Assad’s favour with Russia launching air strikes against his foes.
Iran appears to be adjusting its stance in ways that could create more ground for compromise with Western countries that are coming to accept Assad cannot be driven from power by force.
“Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of Tehran’s delegation at the Syria talks on Friday, was quoted by Iranian media as saying.
A senior official from the Middle East familiar with the Iranian position said that could go as far as ending support for Assad after the transition period.
“Talks are all about compromises and Iran is ready to make a compromise by accepting Assad remaining for six months,” the official told Reuters. “Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country’s fate.”
Syrian opposition figures, already bristling from having been excluded from Friday’s talks about the fate of their country, dismissed the reported Iranian proposal as a ruse.
“Who is mad enough to believe that under these circumstances in Syria, anybody can hold elections?” said George Sabra, a member of the Western-backed political opposition, the exiled Syrian National Coalition, told Reuters. “Bashar al-Assad and his regime is the root of the terrorism in Syria.”
They say any fair vote is impossible in wartime conditions in which nearly half of the country is displaced.
“In the shadow of this anarchy there will not be real elections, therefore we reject them absolutely,” said Ahmed al-Seoud, a fighter in the rebel 13th Division which has been fighting in the western Hama province.
Abu Ghaith al-Shami, a spokesman for the rebel Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group which is fighting in the south, said Assad’s participation in an election was unthinkable: “The fate of Assad and all criminals should be in court following the massacres committed by him and those with him, towards the Syrian people.”
Nevertheless, a commitment from Iran to a defined time limit for a transition could be viewed as a significant new undertaking, potentially forming a basis for future diplomacy at a time when Assad’s position has been strengthened by Russia’s decision to join the war on his side.
A senior US official and other delegates said a new round of Syria peace talks could be held as soon as next week.
All previous efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war have collapsed over the insistence of the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey that Assad agree to leave power.
In the past, Iranian delegations were excluded for refusing to sign up to UN-backed proposals that called for a transition of power in Damascus. Tehran has long said it was not committed to Assad as an individual, but that it was up to Syrians to decide his fate, a position that amounted to an endorsement of election results that confirmed him in office.
Russia’s participation in the conflict on Assad’s behalf creates a new incentive for a diplomatic push to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million people from their homes. Western countries that have called for Assad’s removal from power appear to have accepted that he cannot be forced out on the battlefield.
In the latest violence from the battlefield, a local rescue group operating in rebel-held areas said more than 45 people were killed by a government missile strike on a marketplace in a town near Damascus.
The group, Syrian Civil Defence, posted a picture on its Facebook page of about a dozen bloodied bodies laid on the ground. It linked to a video showing people tending to survivors in a chaotic scene of blackened rubble and fire.
“Utterly heinous that while world leaders meet for peace in Vienna, attack(s) against civilians continue in Syria,” the group said on Twitter.
HOPE FOR COMPROMISE
The United States has said it is looking for signs of compromise from Tehran and Moscow at Friday’s conference, defending its decision to talk directly to Iran about the Syrian conflict for the first time.
The conference will also be attended by European powers, Turkey and Iran’s arch enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia.
“I am hopeful that we can find a way forward,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters shortly before the meeting began on Friday morning. “It is very difficult.”
Iranian and Russian officials have repeatedly said the priority for Syria should be the defeat of Islamic State militants, who have seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The divide between Assad’s allies and Western and Arab nations seeking his ouster has deepened since Moscow began air strikes against opposition forces in Syria a month ago.
Russia says it is bombing Islamic State, but most of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Assad, including many that are supported by Washington’s allies.
The United States is leading its own bombing campaign against Islamic State, the world’s most violent jihadist group, but says Assad’s presence makes the situation worse. Washington has said it could tolerate Assad during a short transition period, but that he would then have to exit the political stage.
Assad’s latest seven-year presidential term runs until 2021. He is believed to control a quarter or less of Syrian territory, but that includes the main cities of Western Syria which are home to the bulk of people still inside the country.
Assad’s office said on Tuesday political initiatives could not work in Syria before terrorism had been wiped out, his long-held position.