BEIRUT: A senior Syrian minister held out the prospect Tuesday that embattled President Bashar Assad could leave power as part of a negotiated settlement to the increasingly ferocious conflict.
The surprise comments from Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil during a visit to Moscow emerged after Russia warned the West against meddling in Syria following U.S. President Barack Obama’s hints that the U.S. may use military force if Syria deployed chemical weapons.
In Syria itself, at least 128 people were killed nationwide Tuesday, among them 81 civilians, monitors said, reporting relentless shelling and fighting across swathes of the main battleground of Aleppo as well as in Damascus.
“As far as his resignation goes – making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means that you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” Jamil said after talks in Moscow.
But he added: “Any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”
According to political sources in Damascus, Jamil was sent to Moscow to discuss a possible plan for a presidential election in Syria in which all candidates would be allowed to stand, including Assad.
The exiled opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council said it was studying the formation of a transitional government, but did not elaborate on whether it could include regime figures.
The West has long sought Assad’s departure, accusing him of butchering his own people during a 17-month conflict that began as a peaceful uprising but has deteriorated into a brutal fight between regime forces and rebels.
The United States expressed deep skepticism Tuesday about Jamil’s comments, suggesting they were designed to complicate transition plan efforts already under way.
“We saw the reports of the press conference that the deputy prime minister gave. Frankly, we didn’t see anything terribly new there,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “The Syrian government knows what it needs to do, and the Russian government, as you know, joined us in Geneva in setting forth a very clear transition plan.”
She added that the Russians should encourage the Assad regime “to start now to be following through on a transition plan, but, you know, there’s no need to complicate it, as the deputy prime minister appeared to do there.”
Syria’s traditional allies Russia and China have blocked U.N. resolutions on the conflict, rejecting what they see as foreign attempts at regime change. Activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed since March 2011, while the U.N. puts the death toll at 17,000 and says hundreds of thousands more have fled or been made homeless in a major humanitarian crisis.
On the ground, heavy shelling was reported across many parts of Aleppo, including an area where a Japanese journalist was killed in gunfire Monday, while warplanes bombarded the northern town of Marea, activists said.
Obama had put Assad’s regime on notice Monday that while he had not ordered military action “at this point,” Washington would regard any recourse by Damascus to its deadly arsenal as crossing a red line. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons ... That would change my calculations significantly,” he said.
Syria’s admitted in July that it has chemical weapons and could use them in case of any “external aggression.”
Jamil brushed off Obama’s comments as “simply propaganda linked to the U.S. election” and warned against intervention. “Those who are contemplating this evidently want to see the crisis expand beyond Syria’s borders,” he said in Moscow.
“There should be no interference from the outside,” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said. “The only thing that foreign players should do is create conditions for the start of dialogue,” he added, but also told Jamil that efforts by Damascus to end the conflict were “not enough.”
On the ground, a top FSA commander, Colonel Abdul-Jabbar al-Okaidi, said the rebels now controlled 60 percent of Aleppo, the now-battered manufacturing hub that was largely spared the fighting until a month ago. “The people are with us,” he added. “How else do you think we could have lasted a month?”
But a security source in Damascus dismissed the claims as “completely false.”
“The terrorists are not advancing, it is the army that is making slow progress,” he said, but added: “Reinforcements from both sides are heading to Aleppo. It is a war that will last a long time.”
Another opposition source said Tuesday Syria’s air force had redeployed 30 Sukhoi fighter-bomber jets closer to major cities in the the country’s north and east.
An official in the Higher Leadership Council for the Syrian Revolution said the Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-22 planes, which can drop 400 kg bombs, flew from the Dumair and Sim air bases north and east of Damascus Monday to bases in the city of Hama Tabaqa and Deir al-Zour. “This type of Sukhoi is more geared to bombing missions than aerial combat. They are now within a more manageable range to hit the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Deir al-Zour and areas in Idlib province,” Mohammad Mroueh told Reuters from Amman.
The relentless fighting has triggered a mass exodus and left another 2.5 million in need of aid inside the country, creating what a U.S. State Department official said was one of the worst crises in the world today,
“It’s like nothing I’ve seen in any conflict I’ve ever been involved in, the level of attacks against people simply trying to provide humanitarian assistance,” said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
Five members of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders promoting peace and human rights, and aid groups Save the Children, Refugees International and the Norwegian Refugee Council Global urged the U.N. Security Council Tuesday to push for humanitarian access in Syria and prevent thousands of people displaced by the 17-month conflict from being “held hostage” by the world body’s political deadlock.
“Over one-and-a-half million people inside Syria are now internally displaced persons, uprooted from their homes as a result of the conflict in Syria,” the group wrote in a letter to Security Council envoys.
Activists reported troops had stormed a town near Damascus, torching homes and shops, while helicopters and warplanes strafed several suburbs of the capital, which the regime claimed to have largely retaken last month.