Speaking to French reporters this week, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad said he was “ready to negotiate everything” in an upcoming round of peace talks surrounding the six-year-old civil war in his country, including potentially stepping down as head of state.
“When you talk about negotiation regarding whether to end the conflict in Syria or talking about the future of Syria, anything, it’s fully open, there’s no limit for that negotiations,” Assad said in response to a question regarding what topics could potentially come up in negotiations. When asked if that would include “your position as President,” Assad responded, “yeah.”
“This is one of the points that could be discussed in that meeting, of course, but they cannot say ‘we need that president’ or ‘we don’t need that president’ because the president is related to the ballot box,” he added. “If they don’t need him, let’s go to the ballot box. The Syrian people should bring a president, not part of the Syrian people.”
Assad received 89 percent of the vote in a 2014 presidential election widely dismissed as a “sham,” with voters in many war-torn areas unable to reach ballot boxes in their home districts.
In discussion with journalists over the weekend, Assad noted that any discussion is contingent on only “real Syrian opposition” being present for the talks, without elaborating much on what that title entails.
One reporter asked Assad whether he could ever see himself not being president of Syria, given that his father Hafez was also the nation’s dictator for much of his life. Assad again responded, “yeah.”
“If I want to be president while the Syrian people doesn’t want me, even if I win in the elections, I don’t have strong support, I cannot achieve anything,” he noted, suggesting that he would only run in a presidential election if he wanted to be president and if “the will of the Syrian people” was on his side.
Before Russia’s intervention in Syria, to Assad’s benefit, the head of state was far more reticent regarding his departure. In December 2015, shortly after Russia became more actively involved in the region, Assad refused talks with rebels because the international community, he argued, “want the Syrian government to negotiate with terrorists, something I don’t think anyone would accept in any country.”
Over the weekend, Assad also had some friendly words for American President-elect Donald Trump. “What [Trump] announced yesterday was very promising,” Assad said, referring to Trump’s call for improved relations with Russia. “If there’s a genuine approach or initiative toward improving the relation between the United States and Russia, that will effect every problem in the world, including Syria. So, I would say yes, we think that’s positive.” Assad has previously described Trump’s election as “a great… very important message to the world.”
Russia began actively intervening in the Syrian civil war in 2015, claiming to be working to defeat the Islamic State. An October 2015 study found that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes in Syria did not target the Islamic State, however. While Russia took credit for liberating the ancient city of Palmyra from the jihadi outfit, staging a Russian opera concert led by Putin crony Sergei Roldugin there in May 2015, by December the Islamic State had recaptured the culturally significant city.
The United States has failed to intervene significantly in Palmyra. “The reason we’re not acting more aggressively [against ISIS in Palmyra] is first of all, that’s the first fact of life is that [Palmyra] was theirs [Russia’s],” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters in December, shortly after the recapture, calling the ISIS resurgence “an embarrassment” to Russia.
There is little evidence from American sources that Russia has done more to target the Islamic State since helping Assad recapture Aleppo from non-ISIS Syrian rebel groups. “They haven’t done anything against ISIL,” a frustrated Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Meet the Press‘s Chuck Todd on Sunday. “Virtually zero. They came in, they said they were going to fight ISIL, and they said they were going to help in the civil war in Syria. They haven’t done either of those things.”
“The Russian behavior in Syria has certainly made the ending of the Syrian civil war there harder,” Carter concluded.
American officials, in contrast, have continued operations against the Islamic State in the nation, sometimes aided by the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) active in areas not held by Assad or by non-ISIS rebels. On Monday, the Pentagon revealed that the American Expeditionary Task Force, which the Washington Post describes as “a team of Special Operations forces based in Iraq that is charged with hunting down Islamic State leaders,” engaged in a ground operation against Islamic State terrorists.
“The Coalition can confirm a U.S. operation in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour on Jan. 8. The U.S. and the entire counter-ISIL Coalition will continue to pursue ISIL leaders wherever they are to ensure the security and stability of the region and our homelands,” U.S. military coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian said of the operation.