Facing diplomatic isolation, Syria’s Assad says he’s willing to step aside

 

McClatchy Newspapers

After losing his most important supporters outside Syria, President Bashar al Assad said his office “doesn’t mean anything to me” and he’s willing to give up it up, though preferably after national elections.

“If the president’s departure is in the interest of Syria, the president should naturally go. This is self-evident,” he told the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet. “You should never stay in office one day if the people do not want you; and the elections are the means through which the people show whether they want you or not.”

Assad gave the interview Sunday, a day after Russia and China joined the United States and other major powers to call for a transitional government with full executive powers to replace Assad’s one-man rule.

Some pro-democracy rebel groups that have been fighting the regime for the past 16 months rejected the plan, drafted by United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan. Their chief complaint was that at the insistence of Russia, Assad’s most important backer, the plan didn’t explicitly require Assad to go.

Assad withheld criticism of the Annan plan and entertained several questions about how long he would stay in office.

“The most important thing is that everything should be decided inside Syria, not outside it,” Assad said, according to the English translation posted on the Syrian presidential web site.

He also didn’t rule out departing office through some means other than elections, such as the Annan plan, which calls for a transitional government that could include members of the regime if they’re acceptable to the opposition. Annan said he doubted the opposition would agree to anyone with “blood on his hands” to be in the transitional government, a clear allusion to Assad.

At least 10,000 Syrians have been killed since Assad deployed his army and security services to suppress the anti-government protests, and the number is probably higher.

It wasn’t clear from Assad’s remarks if he is just trying to appear conciliatory in the face of a policy shift by Russia, his major supplier of arms, trainers and international diplomatic support.

Assad was not invited to send a representative to the conference about his country’s – and his own – future, and in the interview a day after the conference, he noted that he still hadn’t been contacted by Annan or by the Russian government.

In another development Wednesday, Turkish search-and-rescue teams located the bodies of the two pilots whose F4 reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syrian defense forces on June 23.

The aircraft had briefly strayed into Syrian airspace, but Turkey asserts that Syria fired a missile and downed the plane down 15 minutes later over international waters.

The incident has added to tensions between the two countries.

With NATO backing, Turkey has moved troops and anti-aircraft units to the border with Syria and warned it will attack any Syrian military aircraft that appears to threaten Turkey.

Assad did not apologize for the incident, saying that “any unidentified aircraft, and in the same circumstances, even if it the aircraft were Syrian, it would be considered an enemy aircraft.”

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutman

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