Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that the Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad will be willing to call a snap parliamentary election and share power with a “healthy opposition," as the country’s civil war drags into its 54th month.
Speaking to reporters at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, President Putin said he and his US counterpart Barack Obama had discussed the creation of an international coalition to fight “terrorism and extremism" and that they were working with their “partners” in Syria.
"In general, the understanding is that this uniting of efforts in fighting terrorism should go in parallel to some political process in Syria itself," Putin said, according to the Reuters news agency.
"And the Syrian president [Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad] agrees with that, all the way down to holding early elections, let's say, parliamentary ones, establishing contacts with the so-called healthy opposition, bringing them into governing," the Russian president added, without explaining who he was referring to with the term “healthy opposition.”
Russia has backed the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, which began when the Syrian army divided in March 2011, over orders to open fire on peaceful demonstrations, that were being held in the context of the Arab Spring revolution against the country’s Baathist dictatorship.
A number of attempts by the Assad regime to demonstrate reforms on the road to democracy after the uprising started has failed to convince the majority of Syrian people, as well as the international community, that such moves are genuine.
In February 2012, a referendum was held on constitutional reforms which would limit the rule of a president to two seven-year terms while the regime continued to bomb opposition-held parts of the country.
Although Syrian officials said that nearly 90 percent backed the reforms with a 57 percent turnout, the referendum was dismissed as a sham by a number of Western officials and was boycotted by the country’s biggest opposition groups - the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria.
Syria also held a presidential election in regime-controlled areas in June 2014, with Assad triumphing over two other candidates with 88 percent of the vote. According to the regime’s constitutional court, the turnout was 73 percent, but this figure has been highly doubted.
US Secretary of State John Kerry at the time called the election, which saw 21 candidates barred from running before they were held, “meaningless.” The European Union, meanwhile, said that the elections were “illegitimate and undermine the political efforts to find a solution” to the conflict.
Breaking the stalemate
The security vacuum arising from the war, which has forced the regime out of most of Syria’s territory into its strongholds in and around the capital Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia, has allowed militant groups such as ISIS to get a foothold in the country.
The US, which originally stood opposed to the Assad regime, failed to secure support for an intervention in Syria in the summer of 2013, following chemical attacks on opposition-held regions in the suburbs of Damascus allegedly carried out by the regime.
By proposing the Assad regime disposes of its chemical weapons in cooperation with international monitors, Russia left the US with no alternative but to retreat its naval ships which had gathered in the eastern Mediterranean in preparation for a possible attack on regime targets.
However, the following year after the rise of ISIS, which has set up its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the US initiated a coalition of Western and Arab forces to launch an aerial campaign against the militant group in both Iraq and Syria.
Russia has been pushing the US to coordinate its aerial campaign against ISIS in Syria with the Assad regime as well as “moderate” opposition groups, even though most opposition groups are hesitant to cooperate with Assad, as they fear doing so would give him legitimacy to his rule.
After the five permanent United Nations Security Council members (namely the US, the UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany, otherwise known as the P5+1 agreed with Iran, one of Assad’s main supporters, to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions in July, many began to speculate a change in the West’s stance towards the Assad regime.
UN Security Council decision
In August, the the United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed on supporting the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to pressure all sides involved in the civil war to bring an immediate end to the conflict.
“The only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, with a view to full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 and, in this regard, emphasizes the urgency for all parties to work diligently and constructively towards this goal,” a statement read out by the Council President said.
“Laying out key steps in a process to end the violence, the Geneva Communiqué, adopted in 2012 by the first international conference on the issue and later endorsed by the Security Council, calls, among others, for the establishment of a transitional governing body, with full executive powers and made up by members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups, as part of agreed principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led political transition,” the UN website further explains.
Previous attempts to end the conflict in Syria failed after the collapse of talks in Geneva in February 2014. A Russian-led attempt to revive peace talks in Moscow failed to garner the support of mainstream opposition groups in Syria, who suspect Russia’s bias towards the Assad regime.
Four-and-a-half years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates. More than 6.7 million Syrian have also been displaced internally while at least 5.4 million have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.