Assad says family do not own Syria, ready to be voted out


 Reuters International

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to French journalists in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on January 9, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS.

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his family did not "own" the country they have run for 46 years, saying he would step aside if the Syrian people choose another leader in an election.

Assad also told a group of Belgian reporters that he saw promise in U.S. President Donald Trump's determination to fight Islamic State, although it was too early to expect any practical steps, state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday.

With backing from Russia and Iran, Assad now seems militarily unassailable in the Syrian civil war that spiralled from protests against his rule nearly six years ago during a wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats.

Assad, 51, came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, former President Hafez al-Assad, who became head of state in 1971 after a military coup the previous year.

Asked if he could imagine a Syria that was not run by his family, Assad said: "Of course. We don't own the country. My family does not own the country."

"Syria is owned by the Syrians, and every Syrian citizen has the right to be in that position," Assad said.

Russia, his most powerful ally, is seeking to revive peace talks aimed at ending a war that has shattered Syria into a patchwork of separate areas and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Russia circulated a reformed Syrian constitution at peace talks in Kazakhstan last month that said no president could serve more than two consecutive terms, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

Moscow says the document drafted by Russian specialists was only tabled for the purpose of discussion.

Moscow's effort to revive peace talks follows the rebels' biggest defeat of the war, when they were driven from eastern Aleppo in December by the Syrian army with decisive help from the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias.

Assad said he would step aside if voted out of power in an election - something he has said in the past.

"If the Syrian people choose another president, I would not have to decide to step down, I will be out of this position," he said in the interview published on Tuesday.

Assad controls all the main cities of western Syria, where the bulk of the population live. A presidential election was held in 2014, though the vote was declared a farce by his opponents. Swathes of Syria remain out of his control including areas held by the Islamic State group and a Kurdish militia.

TRUMP SEEN AS "PROMISING"

Trump has held out the possibility of cooperation with Russia in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

The Kremlin said Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed setting up "genuine coordination" in the fight against Islamic State and "other terrorist groups" in Syria during a phone call last month.

Assad was quoted by SANA as telling a group of Belgian reporters: "I believe this is promising but we have to wait and it's too early to expect anything practical."

Assad was also quoted as saying that U.S-Russian cooperation in stepping up the fight against the militants would have positive repercussions.

Under former U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States ruled out the idea of cooperating with Assad in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, viewing his rule as a big part of the problem.

Trump has made defeating Islamic State a core goal of his presidency and signed an executive order asking the Pentagon, the joint chiefs of staff and other agencies to submit a preliminary plan on how to proceed within 30 days.

For now, U.S.-Russian cooperation is largely limited to coordinating to ensure that the two countries' air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimised.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Editing by Tom Perry and Angus MacSwan)

Reuters

 Reuters International