Russia believes Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is a popular leader who could win a re-election, Moscow's envoy to the Middle East has said, in an interview promoting a supposed thaw in ties between Syria's once-pariah regime and Arab nations.
“He’s fairly popular, if he wasn’t, the results of the last few years would have been different,” President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, said in an interview with Bloomberg in Moscow this week. “Of course, I think so,” he added, when asked whether the Syrian leader can triumph in the next presidential vote.
The interview highlighted efforts by Moscow to rehabilitate Assad and facilitate his return to the world stage. Assad has become a global pariah for his conduct during the civil war but has remained Russia's key ally in the Middle East. His regime's survival, now all but assured, is attributable largely to Russian and Iranian military and economic support.
Work is scheduled to start early next year on a new constitution for Syria ahead of UN-supervised elections. Assad won a 2014 presidential election in which voting did not take place in rebel-held areas and was boycotted by opposition groups. After almost seven years of civil war, the Syrian government is stepping up control of the country, with the planned withdrawal of US forces expected to hand back a key oil-rich region to the central authorities.
Russia expects the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, to readmit the country, said Mr Bogdanov, who is also deputy foreign minister.
“Many Arab countries have understood that this decision wasn’t thought through and even counterproductive,” he said. “It’s very important for the Syrians and Arabs to re-establish ties.”
Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir last week made the first visit by an Arab leader to Damascus since the revolt against Assad's rule began in 2011, traveling on a Russian plane, Mr Bogdanov said. That trip followed a friendly greeting between the foreign ministers of Syria and Bahrain at the United Nations in New York in September.
In October, Assad told a little-known Kuwait newspaper that he had reached a "major understanding" with Arab states following years of hostility over his killing of civilians during the civil war. His interview with Al Shahed was his first with a Gulf publication since the Syrian war began in 2011.
Turkey, which for years has demanded Assad’s ouster, said earlier this month it would consider working with the Syrian leader if he won a democratic vote.
“These are very important developments and we welcome them,” said Mr Bogdanov.
The senior Russian diplomat downplayed concerns about the growing role of Iran in Syria, saying that Iranian-backed forces would leave the country once the government re-establishes full control of all territory.
“If Syrian sovereignty and territorial unity is re-established then there will be no reason for them to be there,” he said, referring to pro-Iran militias and Iranian military forces.
Russia is also ready to mediate between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds in the northeast who have been under US protection, to allow for the return of Syrian government troops and the eventual withdrawal of Turkish forces, Mr Bogdanov said.